Defining Your Culture

Culture is one of those words that everyone has heard but most have a difficult time explaining. If you were to ask ten different people, you would most likely get ten different answers because most people don’t really know what culture is.

I think the growing interest in company or organizational culture is due in part to our difficulty in articulating the concept. What is organizational culture anyway? We recognize admirable examples of it when we see them, but defining the idea isn’t nearly as easy.

Let’s break it down to bring some clarity to the subject…

Culture is a shared experience of people who work together. It encompasses the beliefs, values, and language that become the norms of the organization. These aspects of your organization must be clear before you can have a shared culture.
Culture is about what we all have in common. The process of successfully establishing your company’s culture involves bringing people from all different subcultures onto one unified team; therefore, one of the leader’s most important responsibilities is to create a culture where people from all different backgrounds thrive together.
Culture is the way your team members think, act, and understand the world around them. It’s the very DNA and soul of your organization. Your culture determines the values and behaviors that are acceptable and expected. It influences how your team behaves in the course of their work.
I like what Dee Ann Turner, former vice president of Human Resources at Chick-fil-A, says regarding culture:
“Organizational culture is defined by a set of shared beliefs, practices and outlooks that determine expectations toward colleagues, customers, and owners alike. The purpose, mission, and values of the organization form the core of the culture and establish the way the organization achieves its goals.”
In summary… organizational culture shapes the workday experience of each team member. It comes out of your vision, mission, shared values, expectations, and language—all of these factors, great and small, shape the organization’s overall direction. 

What’s Your Definition?

As leaders, we always begin with the end goal in mind, a picture of what the future will look like. You are the architect of the future of your organization; it lives in the theater of your mind and no one else’s. You must see it first if others are to follow. If you haven’t decided what you want the culture of your organization to look like, it’s time to do so.

With that thought in mind, how would your organization’s culture be described by your team? Whether you feel you have a good handle on this or not, I would challenge you to take the time to do a simple exercise with your key leaders: Have them write down how they would define your company culture. I suspect you will find this very eye-opening as you discover how varied their answers are.

This is an extremely valuable investment of your time because if your leadership is unclear about the definition of your culture, it’s nearly impossible for your team to be clear about the expectations of your organization. Culture either happens because leaders intentionally create it, or it happens organically because the people on your team create it.

Create a Healthy Culture, Invest in Your Future

I know when it comes to growing your business (or organization) that just finding enough people to meet your customers’ needs, making payroll, and paying your taxes feels like all you can do some days. Culture is probably one of the last things on your mind. It can seem like something you focus on when your organization is bigger and more established, after all the basics are mastered.  
The problem with that is that culture is foundational to your business or organization, and if it’s not mastered early on, you will feel it in all aspects, including your customers’ experience.

How you define your culture determines the foundation of your brand and becomes the very thing your leaders and team will build on.

If you don’t define your culture, you will always struggle with your identity as an organization. Therefore, you need to decide what you want your organization to be known for, and then you can compare that with what you’re known for in the minds of the people you want to serve.

This is a good starting point and can provide a reality check for how much work you have in front of you. The bottom line is if there is not clarity about what your culture should look like in the organization, then there won’t be clarity in the minds of your customers either.

Investing your time and effort in this area is wise because in organizations where a healthy culture is nurtured, protected, and celebrated, it’s more about doing life together than it is working together. This happens when the people are so aligned around the vision, mission, and values of the organization that their relationships go beyond the work environment. And it’s something so special and so rare that it’s worth fighting for and protecting!

Together, we can leave a mark that can’t be erased.
Terry Gwaltney
Author, Culture-neer
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