Organizational culture may be one of the most underrated characteristics of great businesses. A great company culture is a top value, something strongly held and shaped by its people. Leaders of great cultures should do everything they can to protect it, to shape it, and defend it from intruders.
Take Google. We’ve all heard the stories of the wonders the company offers its employees: great pay; exceptional benefits; on-site laundry; napping rooms; professionally-cooked meals all comped; pet services; lax vacation / PTO policies; the list goes on. Google discovered years ago that if you take care of your employees first, they will, in turn, take care of the customers. Putting employees first is the sign of a caring culture. A caring, nurturing organizational culture creates a caring, nurturing customer culture.
Customers won’t care what you know until they know that you care.
Take Southwest Airlines. At Southwest, they, too, believe in putting employees first before customers. Herb Kelleher, their founder, espoused the belief that if you take care of your people, your people will take greater care of the customer. He made sure to not only actively listen to his employees, he was always asking what more he could do for them. What did they need? What was missing? What suggestions did they have for the airline? How could they make it better? He always made sure everyone understood the mission, “To be the low cost airline,” while still doing his best to take care of his people and to let them know he and his executives cared for them. When people know you care, they in turn care for the customer and for each other. As Ray Dalio points out again and again in his book, Principles: “Meaningful work. Meaningful relationships.” Some leaders have this more figured out than others.
What is bigger than me that I want to be a part of?
Organizational culture is peoples’ collective beliefs, feelings, and behaviors toward one another, the people they serve, and the organization as a whole. While it is very powerful, omnipotent, and guides behavior and decision-making, it unfortunately may go unspoken, even at firms where it is healthy. Organizational culture answers, “Who are we and what do we stand for? What do we value? What are we all doing here, anyway? What is the mission we all purport to believe in? What is bigger than me that I want to be a part of?”
Management Guru Peter Drucker often talked of organizational culture in his writings and teachings. He believed culture superseded everything else within the company, even strategy. In fact, he has his classic saying that is often quoted:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
— Peter Drucker
Drucker teaches that if you want to change the direction of a company, don’t start with strategy or a new set of behaviors for people. Make sure you start with analyzing the company culture first because culture precedes strategy. If the organizational culture will not accept the strategy, the strategy will fail. What is strategy but asking (or demanding) that others take on new sets of attitudes and behaviors they may not have performed before and will likely be uncomfortable with? Historical software user acceptance patterns of new tools and features can show you how well that works. You may have the best new Killer App on the planet, but if your people are not ready for it or don’t understand it or are scared of new Tech, than you may want to re-think your strategy.
Culture supersedes even the mighty Tech.
Consider Luddites. They are a group of people who have an aversion to technology. They share a common culture, a set of negative beliefs and attitudes about tech that they will likely never change. They want nothing to do with your new Killer App. They want nothing to do with the new iPhone. They care not a whiff about new software features and what they can do for them. Even if you use keen logic and point out how much time and effort your new Tech will save them, they won’t hear you. It is not in their culture. You’re bringing them a new strategy, and their all-powerful, emotionally-driven culture trumps it. Culture supersedes even the mighty Tech.
Culture is about what we will or will not do. It is about what we will or will not tolerate. Culture is about what we are or are not open to consider. Culture is about who we are or are not as a people. What we stand for embodies the culture. What is it we want? What are we pursuing? What are we willing to do to get there? Who is coming with us on the journey?