What Culture in a Company Is – And, Perhaps More Important, What It Isn’t

Let’s quickly identify a misconception: culture isn’t “perks,” nor is it a collection of soft adjectives. Rewards or attributes are derivative of culture, but not in and of themselves meaningful. When they’re divorced from culture or mistaken for culture, all you’re creating is a parade of expenses and expectations. Culture is comes solely from vision. Your vision.

Entrepreneurs constantly position themselves as the “best” at [insert segment]. That their “culture” is one of excellence, or that they’re industry leaders, etc. Okay. So what are they prepared to do for that? Are they hungrier than their competition, are they truly driven, or willing to make the hard sacrifices that being “the best” entails? Are they interested in a lifestyle business or being a relentless giant slayer?

If this is sounding familiar, you might want to check yourself. On the surface, clients might buy the positioning, but deep down they know that they’re dealing with lip service. Employees will nod/agree, but see someone who’s a hypocrite.

Culture is 100% derivative of your vision as a business leader. For culture to stick, you need to make people believe. To do that, you need to both communicate it clearly and do everything within your influence for that culture to exist, including embodying it.

For example, if you want to be known as cutting edge, you’ll need to factor that into your R&D/training budgets, reducing your prospective earnings. Every phase of your business cycles — from concept to handoff metrics/documentation — should be shaped through the time/effort considerations of your cultural lens. In short, your business model needs to adapt to the values and commitments your vision (read: culture) is predicated on.

Culture also sets subjective metrics of success. I used to ask the design team two very poignant questions when their work was technically correct (on brief, in brand, on target), but didn’t live up to the spirit of our agency’s expectations. First, “are you proud of this?” and, exceedingly rare, “are you telling me this is the best you’re capable of?” No one ever answered yes to both. In the morning, there’d be creative that met our standards awaiting review that better served the client and the campaign. It may sound harsh, but our reputation, our covenant with clients, and business model required consistently exceptional work. That’s what people signed on for, employee and client alike – the fundamental promise of what it is to work for/with you.

Culture informs work habits, inter-team collaboration, and allows each employee to know what they’re contributing to. (And why). They’ll stretch if they feel it’s worth it – simply grinding hours to put money in your bank account isn’t fulfilling, even if means more in their take home. We spend more time working with our colleagues than we do with our spouses or lovers – it’s got to feel like it matters. And that’s on you.

Allow me to conclude this series with an imperative: Be the leader your employees quote years from now. Be the leader you wish you had. Be the mentor that changes lives. Be the best, demand the best, and you’ll bring that out in everyone around you to the betterment of their careers, your client’s business objectives, and your bottom line.