Fortune magazine recently came out with a list of “The 100 Best Companies to Work For” (Fortune magazine, March 2015). In each of these companies, there is evidence of a strong corporate culture that creates clarity of who the organization is and how it wants to treat its people. Culture can happen without any specific vision, but to achieve “best company” status, it’s an intentional, directed effort to create a culture that attracts a top-notch workforce and allows the business to thrive.

Fortune described three trends in their most recent survey (Fortune magazine, March 2015, p. 141-143): “First, the best workplaces are getting better”. They continually are upping their game and setting the bar higher for themselves. Second, “The best employers are better because more business leaders are focused on workplace culture as a competitive tool”; Third, “Each of the 100 Best Companies has leaders who genuinely listen to their employees and craft distinctive polices and programs that suit today’s workforce”.

Given the improving economy and multiple career options, having a strong, positive culture where people feel they can thrive can make the difference in retaining your precious talent.

A strong, unified culture is also very difficult to maintain as the business grows and becomes more diversified both geographically and by product or service. I recognize that speaking of organizational culture as a single entity is a bit of an over-simplification, but conceptually, the framework I describe below can apply to a function, business unit or overall organization.

Definition of Culture

How do you define organizational culture? For those of us who like concrete, clear, rational and objective ways of viewing the world, defining culture can be a difficult challenge. It’s one of those things that has some observable signs almost immediately when you walk in the front door, but also contains a number of subtle elements that may not be apparent unless you work within the culture for a period of time. 

The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said, “We are what we repeatedly do”. Building off of his statement, we can define organizational culture as “consistent, observable patterns of accepted behavior”. Each word is carefully chosen but I would place special emphasis on “accepted”—when people behave outside the norms in a strong culture, they will find themselves struggling to gain acceptance, credibility and influence. I think things like the typical business dress, the formality and methods used in how people communicate, manager and staff interactions, whether there’s free food, and the structure of the work hours all help illustrate a culture, but it’s deeper than that. Those are surface elements that provide clues about how people are expected to work together, how information flows, the importance of hierarchy, how productivity is measured and how results are accomplished.

Understanding Culture

Why is understanding culture important? For one, culture makes a big difference in the people we attract as associates, the type of customers or clients we do business with, how work gets done and how decisions get made. The more a person can articulate the underlying culture of a given organization the more likely he or she can then figure out how to fit in and be successful within that environment.

When I started my career at ExxonMobil, I had an assignment to create a Wellness Committee. Its purpose was the promotion of healthy lifestyles for our employees and their families. I learned a lot about the decision-making process at our site from this assignment. The goal in getting the proposal approved was to minimize the conflict and potential issues by vetting the plan with each individual department head. Once I got his or her buy-off to the proposal I then presented the (already agreed upon) proposal to the plant manager, who then gave a formal “blessing”. Since everything had been vetted prior, it was just a matter of record that the proposal had been approved. As a young employee, this process was a clear sign of how major decisions were to be made.

In my view, there are five components to organizational culture (see Figure 1). Any of these components, if overlooked, can undermine the intended culture.


Let me explain each component in a bit more detail.

Vision. A vision statement describes a bold future end state, what the world (or at least the organization) might look like if it achieves its mission. A clear vision helps describe (even if indirectly) the organizational culture needed to help that vision become a reality.

Values. These are the guiding principles that drive accepted behaviors or how people interact with one another. Ethics and Integrity or Customer Service might be examples. Most organizations have a set of values, but sometimes don’t live them or embed them in their people practices. Sometimes, employees may not even know or be able to recite what the organization’s values are. The challenge is in ensuring that the values are not just statements, but actually drive how decisions are made and how things get done. Values (or principles) help inform what’s acceptable in terms of behaviors.

Expectations. Beyond having values, there must be clear expectations for all employees, and in particular, leadership. Expectations define the key behaviors, guidelines and polices that explain how we conduct business and interact with each other. They may or may not be written, but over time become very apparent. The more these expectations are communicated and exemplified by senior leaders, the more everyone will “get” what behaviors are appropriate and accepted.

Systems. These are the practices and processes that enable the implementation of the vision and values and support the behaviors. For example, if we have a value of Integrity, what is the process for identifying, communicating and dealing with situations (or behaviors) that may not be in accordance company ethical guidelines? If we say that the development of our people is important, what tools, processes or systems do we have to guide and support career development, especially in light of today’s reality of a “free agent” workforce? As stated above, one of the trends of the 100 Best Companies is that they “listen to their people and craft policies and programs that suit today’s workforce”.

Sustainability. Finally, there needs to be a way for checking in periodically to see if our expectations and systems are in alignment with our vision and values. Are we driving the culture we want? Is there something amiss that is undermining what we say we value? What can we do to improve our culture and continue to attract and retain the best and brightest? Gathering data on what’s working (or not) is critical to sustaining a strong culture.

Even if being on the 100 Best Companies to Work For is not your primary objective, it’s worth taking a moment to assess what your people think about your culture and what compels them to stay or drives them into the arms of another opportunity elsewhere.

In future posts, I will discuss how to create a culture of talent development within your organization.