Corporate Culture: A Business Game Changer

For ages the pundits, educators, and practitioners alike have sought relentlessly to figure out what it is that leads some businesses to successful outcomes while others stagnate, sway, or even realize certain death.

Often times from afar two businesses can look, feel, and act very similar. They may be in a similar industry, create similar products/services, and even be located in the same geographic region. However with all of these similarities, it isn’t uncommon to see one company thrive while the other can barely survive.

With so much in common, the idea that similar looking businesses can yield vastly different results seems crazy. At least on the surface…

The subtleties start with the origination of the business, but the great differentiator comes from what all businesses have in common… People

You see businesses are built on ideas, they blossom around their strategy, and thrive on execution, but when and if they succeed they succeed entirely because of their people.

The business byproduct of the people, the success, and all of that hard work is something we refer to as “Corporate Culture.” Ironically culture is at the heart of every business and may be the most important indicator of whether or not a company will succeed, it is discussed far too rarely and worked on even less. Especially in the case of the companies that need it most.

Culture is a bit of an anomaly; It isn’t that the culture in itself produces anything. It often cannot be detected from afar, and at times it can go unnoticed for long periods of time.

While it can be silent, hard to see from afar, and perhaps misunderstood, culture is also a lighting rod for businesses. When a culture is strong, the business can overcome a lot of adversity. When a culture is weak, it will break under the pressure of just about anything including opportunity.

The reason that culture can be so difficult to understand is that it is often hard to explain a great culture, and within a weak culture it is rarely recognized by those that it has the greatest effect on.

However it isn’t as hard to see culture if you look for it. In fact there are many signs of a strong culture as well as many signs for a weak culture. Here are some specific signs to pay attention to and some questions to ask when looking at your company culture.

Strong Culture – Key characteristics to a strong culture

Trust: In a high trust culture things can be done quickly. Change is made with less resistance and feedback is delivered honest and often. In your organization do people politic and dance around the point as to not offend or stir things up?

Engagement: The employees are focused on their roles and highly engaged on a daily basis. People know what is expected of them and they are comfortable asking questions if they ever get off track.

Commitment: When looking at commitment it comes down to attitude and aptitude. Does the team understand their mission? If so are they behind it?

Celebration: Winning early and often creates strong culture. Celebrating those wins big and small is common in strong cultures. Does your organization celebrate its successes?

Initiative: Often times going too far above and beyond can be problematic, however when it comes to culture, strong ones have high initiative employees. It is rooted in the trust and commitment outlined above. Do your employees and co-workers take the ball or pass it?

Loyalty: Great companies with great cultures tend to have extremely happy team members. They speak highly of their work, their leadership, their organization. What say you and your co-workers about your company?

Productivity: In any organization getting things done is key. Often times the better the culture the more things that are getting done. Little micromanagement required. Does your company have high levels of “Get It Done?”

Communication: A key to success in almost every facet of life. People need to communicate with reciprocity, not just memos and email. The root of every trait above starts here and ends with trust. How does your organization communicate?

Weak Culture – In many cases the inverse of strong culture traits, these are some common signs in weaker cultures.

Blamestorming: Ever since I heard this phrase I have latched onto it. The habit of finding someone to blame resonates and infects weak cultures. Do people in your organization seek someone to blame or do we learn from mistakes and move quickly to correct and not repeat?

Turnover: This one is an easy litmus test. If people are fleeing then things are not good in “Your-org-town.” While the occasional turnover happens and house cleaning is sometimes needed during times of change, turnover as a whole is not a good thing. Are people in your organization actively looking to leave or leaving?

Uncertainty: This can be seen in many areas. Uncertainty about company direction, leadership capabilities, simple processes and procedures, and so on. Are your employees in the know with respect to what is important to them?

Fear: Right next to uncertainty lives fear. Sometimes they actually are created in each others shadows. Fear creates slow, unproductive employees who don’t trust or communicate. Does your organization use fear to drive outcomes?

Blurred Vision: Vision becomes blurred from a number of ingredients but most often from a complete breakdown in communication throughout an organization. More times than not the vision is there but the people don’t know it or they don’t hear it consistently. Does everyone in your company understand the vision?

While there are many other more subtle signs and symptoms of health within a culture, the above represent some of the most apparent traits of disparate culture types.

Like most other critical components to business, culture isn’t something that can be changed overnight, however if the goal is to improve the culture (And it should be no matter how strong your culture may be) then it must be worked on continuously, much like sales, marketing, or bookkeeping for that matter.

The problem is with such intangible results and difficulty quantifying outcomes, culture doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. For whatever reason, culture has been one of the great vanishing acts within leadership conversations, business analysis, and executive education. I’m not sure why it has received the proverbial hall pass, but I suspect that it is because it is one of the harder things to gauge and ultimately quantify.

What can be said for sure is a great vision, coupled with sound strategy will fall flatly on its face if the culture is weak. This is because in the end it all comes down to the people. The people are the ingredients that make the proverbial entree of company success. If the trust, communication, and “Get It Done” traits of a strong culture (among others) exist things will happen. And if they don’t…your company will just be “Everybody Else.”


Post originally appeared on Dan’s Blog Millennial CEO.

Photo courtesy of  Tereso Benito

Daniel Newman is the Co-Founder of 12 Most. Proudly, Daniel is married to his wonderful wife Lisa and has two beautiful daughters Hailey and Avery. Dan is also an Adjunct Professor of Business as North Central College in Naperville, Illinois where he teaches courses in Strategy, Management, and International Marketing. With a passion for helping emerging companies, Daniel sits on the Board of as well as An avid golfer, a fitness fanatic, and a classically trained pianist; Daniel loves life, his family, and helping others.

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