Defining [Our] Company Culture

One of the things I find myself thinking about quite a bit lately, and I find my partners and I discussing, is our company culture. I previously had always brushed culture off as the natural by-product of the personalities of us owners. And to some extent it is, but the problem with that mentality is that it implies that good culture doesn’t require planning or work. As if it magically happens. I mean, without any effort, you’ll get a company culture, it just might not be one you’re proud of. I’ve sort of come full circle on the topic.

Taking a step back, I think that “culture” is such an elusive term because it’s hard to define. I think if you asked twenty business owners you’d get twenty different answers. Which is fine. But if we’re going to work on our company culture, it’s next to impossible to do without first determining our definition of company culture. I’ve intentionally not researched other definitions in an attempt to make myself think through the entire thought process myself, from the perspective of someone who owns Pure Adapt and is interested in Pure Adapt’s culture, and not from the vantage point of someone trying to define culture in a broader sense.

With that said, here’s how I’m defining company culture (in no particular order).

Culture is:

  • How we motivate ourselves and our employees (financial vs. intrinsic motivation)
  • Our work ethic (working as hard as our employees vs. expecting them to do all of the work)
  • How we reward good work (praise, raises, bonuses, extra time off, profit sharing)
  • The qualities we look for when we hire (technical skills vs. social skills vs. personality fit)
  • The atmosphere of the work environment (intense vs. laid back)
  • Where new ideas come from (bottom up vs. top down)
  • How we work together (collaborative work environment vs individual vs dictatorship)
  • How we treat our customers (like we want to be treated vs. inflexible corporate policies)
  • How we celebrate our successes (thousand dollar dinners vs. pizza and beer at happy hour vs. doing nothing)
  • How we handle mistakes (learn and move on vs. holding a grudge)
  • How we dress (casual vs. corporate)
  • How we communicate (one-on-one vs. meetings, in person vs. email vs. IM vs. phone vs. video chat)

Does that make sense? Did I miss something? Clearly some of those questions have no “right” answer, or there are a combination of answers that will work right for us. You can see pretty easily though how different the culture could be just by swinging one or two of those things in a different direction. I think it’s important for us to do a better job of getting our desired culture in place now when we’re small. It’s not that we’ve intentionally been creating a poor culture, it’s that we haven’t really intentionally been creating any culture at all.

I’ve also added a culture category to the blog. I think it’s something I’ll be posting about regularly in 2011, starting soon with a post about some of our recent new initiatives.

11 comments on Defining [Our] Company Culture

  1. AJ says:

    Great post Adam! As a one-time Training and Recruitment Manager for a company, I’d say you hit the mark right on. A company’s culture helps define who it is, for both employees/management and customers.

    ‘How We Dress’ could also be considered a part of ‘Atmosphere of Work Envrionment’. Again, nice list!

  2. Anthony says:

    I know you wanted to avoid researching other companies, but I remember a few months ago, stumbling upon this Netflix powerpoint that was meant only for internal employees. It’s all about how Netflix handles these exact issues, and how their culture allows them to find the best talent, retain it, and be generally, well, awesome. There are 128 slides, but I *highly* suggesting cozying up and reading every single one of them when you have a chance:
    http://www.slideshare.net/reed2001/culture-1798664

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks Anthony, I’ll give it a look. I was mostly looking to avoid reading about other companies prior to this post, mostly so I’d make myself really think everything through from start to finish. I’d also like to pick up “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hseih at some point, which I’ve heard is a great read.

      • Adam McFarland says:

        Just to follow up on this, I read the slides over lunch. They were absolutely fantastic, highly recommended. After seeing your comment Mike mentioned to me as well that he had read them previously and they were great. It’s the perfect example of why defining your company culture is important, and clearly it’s worked out very well for them.

  3. George says:

    It’s not that we’ve intentionally been creating a poor culture, it’s that we haven’t really intentionally been creating any culture at all.

    Intentionally or not, culture is being created on every action one person makes when another person is involved. If you are a one man show, it’s tough to define culture because it just comes down to what one person thinks is right or wrong. When more than one person is involved, culture is being created almost on an incalculable level . Whether it’s in the workplace, with your family, around friends, and so on, if certain actions (and inactions I should say) go as being accepted, then you are creating culture.

    Personally, I think the list you created is more of how should I run the company, not culture, there’s a difference. It’s tough to define culture, you can observe culture, but I don’t think it’s something that’s laid out. Do you enforce culture if it’s laid out?

    Think back to early civilizations that were blessed with very rich culture. Culture was never written out on paper, it was simply doing what the group of people felt was the right thing to do. It was passed down from generation to generation based on actions, traditions, stories and respect.

    Culture is also ever changing and the best way to maintain a healthy culture is to not think about defining culture, but to lead by example. If someone isn’t a good fit in your company culture, then perhaps that person shouldn’t be part of your company, employee or owner.

    • Anthony says:

      George,

      I agree very much with you that culture can be defined whether you intend it to be or not. It works a lot like a PR disaster. You can control it, or you can let it control you. Culture can be defined; companies are not countries, so I don’t think it’s fair to compare them as such. If your company worked like our country, your employees would be able to vote you out. Luckily, it doesn’t. And part of that difference is that you, as owners, get to formally decide on what your culture is going to look like. And by living & working based on those decisions every day, your culture will form itself around your vision. People who don’t agree with your culture will leave, people who do will stay & feel a heightened sense of loyalty, and your company will “naturally” turn into exactly what you want it to be; you can define it before it has a chance to define you.

      • George says:

        Public companies work more like countries, being that the shareholders have a say in how the company is ran, it’s not that much different. Private companies can be set up that way as well if that was setup in your corporate structure. If you don’t have that setup, then you can be in for a long ride when things clash between majority owners.

        I agree that you can have your culture vision in mind and set guidelines to follow, but bottom line, the true culture of anything is the actions that are being accepted and not accepted.

        And by living & working based on those decisions every day, your culture will form itself around your vision. People who don’t agree with your culture will leave, people who do will stay & feel a heightened sense of loyalty, and your company will “naturally” turn into exactly what you want it to be; you can define it before it has a chance to define you.

        Well said, exactly how I feel.

  4. Rob says:

    A great post and some great comments here – just a few things to add. I think another aspect of culture is the level of respect that you show your staff in how you treat them.

    I know some places that see staff as having their own time & life and choosing to spend some of that at work to get a job done. Other companies consider that they own you, and occasionally you have to go away to sleep. This is evidenced by ability to change shifts, take leave, refuse overtime etc. A friend was recently applying for jobs with Magic Circle Law firms and one of them said they’d got a dorm in the office with shower facilities etc. and they expected everyone to use it at least once a week, if they didn’t they’re not working hard enough!

    How do you go on if the major players within the company have different views on the bullet points above? Take a vote? End up with employees having a good boss/bad boss depending on who is line-managing them?

    Also, @Anthony – great comment that George quoted. I agree too – the problem is this can go both ways. You get a few bad people at the top and nobody good ever really wants to stick around. Even when old bad people leave the status quo can persist.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      How do you go on if the major players within the company have different views on the bullet points above? Take a vote? End up with employees having a good boss/bad boss depending on who is line-managing them?

      Really good question. In a perfect world, everyone would always be on the same page all of the time. That gets tougher and tougher the bigger you get. I think the management team has to be on the same page from the start. Having the good boss/bad boss situation is my worst nightmare, both from an employee’s standpoint and as an owner. I look at companies like Zappos and Netflix that try exceptionally hard to weed out any people who don’t fit in their culture right away. For instance, Zappos offers a $2k bonus to new hires to quit http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/sep2008/sb20080916_288698.htm

  5. [...] also busy in terms of work load for everyone. In February I posted about how and why we’re starting to think more about our company culture. We’re working to become more cognizant of our culture: what we’re doing currently, how [...]

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