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Whose Culture Is It Anyway

Whose Culture Is It Anyway?

The benefit of hindsight has led me to a few observations and a perspective on culture that I wanted to share as my company celebrates its sixth anniversary this week.

 

I’ve worked for large multinational companies, consulting firms, an insurance brokerage firm, advertising agencies, Hallmark Cards, The Baltimore Sun (as a paper boy) and too many restaurants to mention. I estimate I’ve had at least 40 jobs since I started working at the A&P at age 8, bagging groceries (don’t worry, it was across the street from my house and my parents knew about it—it was a different era). I cut lawns, started a small fireworks business at age 11, and sold Cutco knives door-to-door at age 16. I was a busboy, a waiter, a sales associate at Harrods, and on and on. I’ve experienced a lot of cultures and had a lot of bosses.

 

Here’s why that all matters: As I look back on every job, company, boss and environment I’ve ever been part of, I’ve discovered three myths and one thing that I believe with 100% certainty is the holy grail of a great culture.

 

First, the three myths:

 

Myth #1: Companies create culture.

FALSE: Companies don’t create culture, they create environments for culture to be established and cultivated. Sometimes these conditions are accidental, sometimes they are led by HR, sometimes they are organic. The best cultures are designed on purpose.

 

Myth #2: Perks, Foosball tables, pets in the office and bagels every morning are culture.

FALSE: These are employee benefits that help create conditions for people to enjoy their time in the office and brag a little about how cool their company is. These things are VERY important but are simply manifestations of a culture—they are the features, not the fabric of a culture.

 

Myth #3: Culture must be described and shared verbally within the organization.

FALSE: Talking about culture is a waste of time; it’s like talking about exercise. If you want to stay in shape, you work out. You don’t talk about the gym, the equipment you bought or your new routine. If you asked 20 people to write a 100-word description of your culture, how close would they be to one another? Culture is lived, felt and embodied. It resides in the heart of your people.

 

The one thing I know for sure is that culture starts at the top, with whomever is in charge—the founder, the CEO, the chairwoman of the board, the manager of the restaurant or the crew leader on a construction site.

 

People don’t quit companies, they quit a boss. And that’s OK. It’s OK if the boss embodies a culture that isn’t what you want or aspire to be part of. People want to work for an organization where the culture is relevant to them, where it is authentic, palpable, tangible and unifying, and where it advances the purpose of the enterprise, the people and the performance of the entity.

 

In the words of Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie As Good As It Gets, culture should make you want to be a better man (or woman).

 

In the early days of our founding, we wrote a credo called The 360 Way. We say it’s what attracts people to work for us, hire us, stay with us and refer us to others. The seven tenets of our cultural center of gravity, The 360 Way, are:

 

We must have IMPACT on those we serve.
LOVE THY CLIENT is central to our mission of service.
We must be THE AUTHORITY in every area of what we do.
EVERYTHING MATTERS to us.
When we say we will do something, we OWN IT.
I’VE GOT YOUR BACK applies to everyone we work with.
TUNE IN TO W360 describes the vibrational frequency we embody.

 

Cultures evolve and are dynamic. If they are strong, aspirational, noble and relevant, they endure.

 

It’s true that culture is what happens when you’re not in the room.