For being an intangible thing, culture certainly does get talked about a lot. And rightfully so. For a company, culture can be that critical enabler (or barrier) to achieving your business strategies and goals. For an individual, culture can be the difference between a good job fit and one that feels like you are trying to do your job in the middle of a mine field.

The question often isn't about how important culture is but how to build it. There are different schools of thought.

One says that culture is really the aggregation of behaviors at all levels from leadership all the way down to the entry level employee. You don't formally create a culture. Instead, your culture is really just a mirror back to you about how you act individually and collectively.

In this view, culture is not necessarily a formal program as much as it is entirely based on the people you bring into the company. Bring in talented people with the right technical and people skills, and you'll get the culture you want.

Another camp says that as leaders you need to actively and formally define, create, and invest in that culture from the top down. You should treat it like any other critical business initiative, which usually means financial investment and formal programmatic and resource allocation.

So which way is right?

The risk of letting your culture form on its own

Both views have one critical thing in common, and that is the notion that culture is really a summation of your behaviors. The thing that differentiates them is whether you let those behaviors develop unchecked or whether you try to create the behaviors you want.

So can you actually construct it?

One of the first misnomers about culture is that you can get together as a leadership team, define what you want your culture to be, memorialize that with some posters on the wall, and think that your culture is and will be that thing.

Most of you have lived in the paradoxical world where the posters on the wall are not even close to how things really are. This common problem might suggest that you can't create a culture.

That's only the case if you don't take the next step, which is the hard work of culture. It's about building alignment at all levels about what the culture is and what those posters on the wall actually mean behaviorally to everyone in the company.

This often requires real and formal investment in building or bringing in the skill sets in people that directly line up with that culture and making sure that you have created the right infrastructure and environment where that culture and those behaviors are rewarded.

Without that critical next step, lots of culture killing things can and do happen.

First, people will define it differently, which creates an environment where you get a lot of different cultures all in one. Sometimes, those cultures are competing or even in direct conflict.

Second and potentially more of a problem, if people in your company don't have the skills to behave in the way that supports your culture, you'll end up with behaviors that undermine it. As much as your people need to be skilled on the technical side of things, they need to learn how to work in the culture you want. This requires investment in building those skills.

Build your culture like any other business critical program

Where culture works, leaders do the following four things:

1. Define it clearly at a behavioral level.

Get really clear on what you want the culture to be. Be sure to get down to the day to day behaviors that are acceptable or not acceptable to support that culture. Then you have to live them at all cost as visible leaders in the company.

2. Build it into everything that happens in the company.

This is about embedding culture into everything from how you interview new people to how you evaluate performance on the people you have to how you reward people.

3. Teach it to people.

If there are critical behaviors and skills people need to make the culture work, formally invest in learning programs to build that skill set. Don't assume that people can translate what is on the wall to their day to day work environment.

4. Review it regularly.

Without attention, culture can slip and migrate all over the place. Review it at a quarterly business review just like you'd review your critical business strategies.

Published on: Feb 23, 2017