We are obsessed with company culture. Everywhere you look there is another book, blog post, anecdote or talk about how to build a lasting, rich or resilient corporate culture. Perhaps it's a tell that there is really no easy answer. And it might also explain why some of the brightest minds are not in agreement on how to get company culture right.

Culture and Brand

"Culture and brand are just two sides of the same coin" is the well-known claim from Zappos founder Tony Hsieh. When a Zappos customer lost her shoes the day before her wedding, employees took it upon themselves to shoot over a new pair in the nick of time. The culture of care became a reflection of the brand. This kind of service may be fitting for Zapponians who are living and breathing through its customers. But does this evangelic kind of behavior work for other organizations? Can it be cut and pasted?

Don't Mess Up the Culture

In the early days of AirBedAndBreakfast (now Airbnb), the founders decided they needed to be deliberate with designing their culture. That's why it took them over six months to develop a statement of their core values. That's why it took another six months (and the review of thousands of applications) before they found and hired their first engineer. Their logic was that this person was going to act as the DNA for all ensuing hires. Like a child, the offspring of this first engineer would embody his or her values. Now hovering at 1000 engineers the company has not only upheld their core values through this line of thinking but have done so while encapsulating a diversity of worldviews within its staff.

The founder also went up to Las Vegas to visit Zappos. They wanted to thoroughly understand why the culture at Zappos was so strong and see if they could learn something from Tony Hsieh and his team. They found that having clear company values is critical. This anchor would provide an enduring purpose from which employees could maneuver. And 10 years on, their values are being lived by all employees every day.

Culture and Leadership

In contrast to the wisdom of Zappos with their core values and clear mission, Edgar Schein believes that culture is really a reflection of a company's leadership. The former MIT management professor claimed that "Culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin." It is the interactions between leaders and their teams, and the team members themselves, that create culture. The rituals and norms that emerge become the organizational culture.  

Often leaders are a reflection of the personality and values of a company's founders.  And if the culture lives amidst an organization's people, their conversations, and behaviors, then perhaps leadership alone is not enough to define culture - but merely help shape it.

Anthony Casalena has obsessively maintained a vibrant company culture at Squarespace. Everyone inside the company is obsessed with the mission: helping people with creative ideas succeed. I've spoken to several employees who confirm this, and it explains why year after year, the company is rated as one of the top places to work in New York City. With bold leadership that reflects Casalena's values and meaningful mission, employees continually bring their best selves to work.

One look at Uber's new CEO, and we can see leadership (and soon culture change) in action. In just 8 words he has set an entirely new and welcoming tone for the company. By admitting that he is scared of taking on his new role, former Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and newly knighted Uber CEO is letting more than 12,000 employees know that it's ok to be vulnerable. In stark contrast to the leadership style of its former CEO, this will have a cascading effect across the company.

The Culture Equation

Another sign of the complexity of culture is how human resources departments have gone under the knife. HR has always been a marketing function - it just didn't always act like it. Once dubbed 'Personnel', today it's not uncommon to hear HR departments called 'People and Culture' teams at many progressive companies. Every day these folks tirelessly work on culture, which includes onboarding, training, events, offboarding, and more.

Culture is nuanced, and a culture equation from Alfred Lin, a partner at Sequoia Capital might shed some light. It accommodates for core values, rituals and a mission as follows:

Everyday _____(A)_____  and  _____(B)_____ of each member of the team in pursuit of our company _____(C)_____

(A) = beliefs
(B) = behaviors
(C) = goals

Perhaps then it's a more expansive view of culture that is required to get it right. Community architect Victoria Stoyanova puts it best when she explains, "Culture is the invisible glue that holds everything together in the equation of professional life."  Without this glue things just fall apart. And like any well functioning system, each part needs to work in unison with every other part for a nourishing culture to develop and endure.

Published on: Oct 31, 2017
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