As organizations like Whole Foods, Patagonia, Apple, Zappo's, Motley Fool and many others have shown, having a vibrant corporate culture is a significant competitive advantage.

So why is it that many companies have no discernible corporate culture whatsoever? Or if a company does, why is it usually negative, or, in the worst case, toxic?

In my experience, I've noticed six recurring factors common to every vibrant corporate culture:

1. It's meaningful. A vibrant culture must be based in something truly meaningful. A bland mission statement is not the basis of a vibrant culture.

Example: "We will deliver operational excellence in every corner of the Company and meet or exceed our commitments to the many constituencies we serve." This is a real mission statement from an organization that will remain nameless, and it is meaningless pap. 

Better example: "We remove every barrier to producing the best possible product." This is essentially Apple's culture and is immediately meaningful. So is something like, "We do whatever it takes to please our customers." This is Zappo's culture, paraphrased.

2. It's externally focused. For a culture to take root in an organization over the long-term, it must deliver added value to the organization's customers or clients. Building exceptional products or exceeding customer expectations (Apple and Zappo's, above) are clearly externally focussed, as are the shopper-centric cultures of Patagonia and Whole Foods.

Internally-focused cultures such as Microsoft's "maximize financial return" (my interpretation) or Google's "hire the smartest people" (again, my interpretation) always lead to eventual decline. Customers work out that they aren't really the center of the organization's concern. 

3. It's depersonalized. As Howard Schultz and Steve Jobs both discovered, a vibrant culture is not the same as a personality cult. In both cases, they built organizations highly dependent upon them as individuals--Schultz at Starbucks and Jobs at Apple--and in both cases they learned that a lasting culture is bigger than any one individual.

Are you building a culture that will last long after you've moved on, or just a personality cult that will disappear when you do?

4. It's not edited. In my career, I've been taken on thousands of 'consultant walks', the factory or office tours led by CEO's or C-level executives who quite rightly, and proudly, want to show off their people and their business.

What's interesting to note is how often those tours are highly circumscribed. The visitor is taken to certain departments, given the opportunity to speak with specific people, because the proud executive wants to show the best side of their organization's culture.

But a truly vibrant culture runs deep and wide in the organization--you can see and feel it in action anywhere and everywhere you go.

Senior executives don't feel the need to edit or manage a visitor's experience.

5. It's not precious. Many businesses treat company culture like it's a Faberge egg: precious, delicate, fragile to the point that it must be protected at all costs.

I've seen companies refuse business because its legalistic culture wouldn't yield to a customer's needs. Others fail to ship product on time because of a so-called 'quality culture' that is, in reality, just a form of corporate narcissism. The company intently checks, re-checks and checks everything over and over lest any small flaw or blemish mar the all-important corporate self-image.

To be truly successful, your business’s culture should be less like sone precious object and more like a rubber ball--vibrant, flexible, robust, resilient. It should be able to take a pounding and still snap back, to keep priorities in perspective and to let things slide when the circumstances merit so.

Think of JetBlue, whose original cultural commitment to 'out-fun' Southwest led to an almost catastrophic melt-down in 2007 which ultimately cost its founder and CEO his job. Since that event the company has learned how to mix 'quirky and fun' with 'robustly effective' and maintain a leadership position in its industry.

Jun 25, 2012