What is Company Culture all about?

And why it’s not what you think it is.

While collecting my thoughts about this topic I launched in the background, a video of a lecture by Ben Horowitz, author of the book What you do is who you are. Several minutes in, he told the audience something that resonated with the angle I wanted this article to take. He was explaining how defining culture for those inside a company is more of an intuitive feeling rather than explicit directives. It went more or less like this:

 “… do you show up at a meeting on time or are you late, do you go home at 5pm or at 8pm,… these are considered cultural elements,… but how do these behaviors set up? Inside the company, everybody knows either you’re late or punctual…” 

He then went onto discussing the idiocy of putting those behaviors on a nice plaque, on display for the whole company to see. Like it would then become the new normal. “If you have to define your company’s culture in a set of ‘cultural behaviors’, printed and pinned on a wall, then your culture is hypocrisy.”

All in all, this fragment of video gave me the perfect segway to go about this article.

Let’s talk about the myths.

I know that I’ll pass as sarcastic, but I’ve had way too many discussions with people mistaking, way too often, people-management for Company Culture.

You might have heard before that X company has a disruptive culture, built around “agile-lean-start-up-methodology” with weekly stand up meetings, free lunch break yoga classes for staff members, colorful chairs and flexdesks, group vacations in a villa “for team building” and ping pong or pool tables in the open space (with tournaments every thursdays).

Or you might have also heard that X company had structured its culture in a “10-commandments-manifesto” or a list of house rules. That they had some internal rites or rituals as part of their culture, like popping champagne every time a client is signed, having a “casual day” at the office every friday or a monthly team restaurant courtesy of the top-management.

But these alone are nothing more than project-management methodologies, HR approaches or even top-management favors to their teams. Nothing more than tactics or ceremonies designed to help boost employee morale,  improve employee skills or create room for coworkers to form relationships.

Don’t get me wrong, whether they are centered around celebrating individual and team accomplishments or bringing colleagues together, they serve the company’s culture, but aren’t of major importance in what defines it.

See… Culture is the result, not the means.

Culture is the by-product of consistent behaviours.

Not gonna lie, it’s a quote from a book called “Rework” by the guys that created, amongst other things, BaseCamp. This one sentence encapsulates the essence of what brand culture is though.

But before diving deeper, let’s get geeky a little bit (when I say geeky, I mean get into the theory).

As we approach culture we have to see this as part of a two faced coin. On one side there’s culture: the employer brand. The result of all actions and values of the company’s day-to-day. 

On the other side, the brand experience: the customer brand. Result of the brand’s expression in all its touchpoints. But there’s a catch, it’s not just two separate segments of a company these elements blend into each other (hence the two faced coin analogy). As culture is an effect of consistent behaviours, the way a company behaves internally has repercussions on how you’ll interact (as a brand) with your customer’s through external touchpoints. 

To better illustrate what we’re saying here, let’s take the example of Nike’s failure to retain Stephen Curry. 

When entering the NBA as a rookie in 2009, Stephen Curry had signed an endorsement with Nike (as do 3/4th of all NBA players). But by summer of the year 2013, his contract was up for renewal. Nike then sent one of his official top representatives to deal with renewing the contract. Curry and his dad, Dell Curry, attended the meeting that started on a disheartening note when the Nike’s official called him “Stef-on”. In later interviews Steph’s father would say about the meeting: “I heard some people pronounce his name wrong before. I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised that I didn’t get a correction. It got worse from there. A PowerPoint slide featured Kevin Durant’s name…I stopped paying attention after that.” These details might seem minor, but they played a huge role in how Nike didn’t succeed in keeping Steph.

You could think one athlete’s endorsement deal does not matter to a massive company like Nike,… you’d be wrong.

Stephen Curry went on to win the 2014/15 NBA MVP Award, since then he made it in three consecutive All-Star teams and helped Under Armour get a 32% growth in Net Revenue for the year 2014. In 2016, the Golden State Warriors superstar was dubbed “the $14Billion man” referring to Curry’s popularity and his impact on the overall Under Armour brand. Very recently in 2020, Under Armour announced the launch of Steph’s own brand (not just a collection within UA, but a brand on its own) the “Curry Brand” similar to when Nike launched the Jordan brand.

Certainly Nike can pride itself on having built recognition for their dedication in sport, community spirit and diversity… but in Steph’s case, what he experienced was closer to disrespect and depreciation than inspiration and innovation (funny how they have innovation in their mission statement but lost a superstar endorsement due to “repurposed powerpoint”… Sweet irony). The brand’s culture felt short in making sure the executives are meticulous and that every player they approach is left feeling special.

Small mistakes that showed that Nike’s culture flaws permeated through their brand’s experience.

Although failures can happen, they’re not a representation of the overall strength of the culture. Granted, Nike isn’t a trash-tier company when it comes to “employer branding”, on the contrary. 

SEE NIKE’S EMPLOYER SCORE 

This example illustrates the notion that culture is the result of shared beliefs, values and practices. And when an employee (in this case the endorsement executive) isn’t perfectly on par with the brand’s guidelines it has consequences on the global brand experience.

The big misconception about Company Culture is that it can be formalized.

People, and companies alike, obsess over Culture. Trying desperately to write it down. In Hubspot’s Culture Code they state: “Whether intentional or not, companies always have a Culture.

As I see it, the problems happen when people mix up tactics or ‘cultural elements’ and Company Culture. If you know your company is all about empathy and care, you’ll hire people that share those values (in this case hiring policies are tactics). Obviously, you’re looking for people who believe in what you believe. Why? Because you’re trying to preserve your company’s Culture, you’re trying to preserve the end result of having like-minded people.

The pitfall of trying to establish precise ‘culture rules’ or carve in stone ‘cultural elements’ is that it is a never ending quest and by doing so, you’re going to mislead the company. With growth for example, you’ll eventually obsess over practical tactics (forcing stand-up meetings when you evolved from a 12 people start-up to a 50+ employee company is far from a benefit to your company) forgetting the more intuitive aspect of Culture.

There’s no secret sauce or culture-in-kit formula. One organization’s culture is deeply rooted in the humans within, the values they share and the active support of leadership.

Let me give you another example, that this time, we lived first-hand. The three of us (the founders of Nemesis) met as co-workers for a B2B company. At first sight it showed everything someone ambitious looks for: Google-like offices, decent salary, fast growing revenue and more.

When we first arrived we received from the HR department a welcome booklet in which you read promising statements such as “…we are above all a community with a people-centred approach.” or even “our strong values include respect: for people, customers and the environment”.

Sounds great, right?

Well it didn’t take two weeks until we all understood that what was said was far from reality. We’ve heard the HR manager say with a straight face: “If you’re not happy here, why don’t you get out?”. 

We’ve seen management make other team members cry. The CEO’s inability to share his vision crushed talents so fast that some new employees were ex-employees in an average period of three months. 

In almost three years we’ve seen, around 98 people get fired/dismissed (mind you, there were 70 collaborator positions at the time). Talk about community… Seeing how it affected some of our colleagues, the company culture wasn’t really about ‘respecting people’ but rather ‘fear management’.

The values you write on your website (or the office’s walls for that matter) means shit, if they aren’t truly aligned with your purpose and experienced daily in your work environment.

So, yeah… we have nothing against writing ‘cultural behaviors’ or values on the wall (even though,we’ll never do it for Nemesis), but if top management does the opposite, you won’t get people to behave like intended.

Culture doesn’t last.

Let’s (re)tackle the obvious. You’ll never be able to set your Company Culture in stone. With new hirings, new growth milestones, new partnerships and so on, comes changes in Company Culture. See, you have to build culture over time by staying consistent and every change challenges the status-quo of your company’s ecosystem.

Storytime again! 

Over a decade ago, two entrepreneurs launched a new app service in San Francisco. One cold night in Paris’ winter they tried to hail a taxi (little did they know, european taxis don’t work like in the US). Without success, they then proceeded to walk back to their hotel, discussing how ‘it would be nice to order a ride from a smartphone, wherever you are’

They came back to California, and inspired by this experience, launched UberCab. At first it was limited to the founders and 100 friends in the bay area. They chose black cars (a differentiator aspect from the average yellow taxis) including black limos for ‘fancier’ occasions.

To their surprise, traction around the service started to increase and as more people desired to benefit from the UberCab service they jumped full time in the project. Their first goal was to create an app that offered a luxurious commutation experience. They had reached a point where they had rallied around 100 drivers. It wasn’t enough though as ‘the black car experience’ drew more and more attention. As demand rises, supply must follow (law of economics 101). Side note: As a milestone, growth is a great indicator of the true nature of one’s culture. They could have easily invested in recruiting more drivers with cash incentives or buy cars on behalf of the company and hire employee drivers (co-founder and advisor Travis Kalanick had sold his previous company, RedSwoosh, for $23 millions 2 years prior, so money wasn’t a problem). But their business model revolved around the independence of the chauffeurs to push toward a better experience (if it is your car and your revenue stream, you’ll be more inclined to strive for the best ‘customer experience’). 

What they did instead, was one of the first remarkable ‘culturally driven’ choices they made (as in: clearly resulting from their Company Culture)… They invited those 100 first drivers to a luxury dining experience in a San Francisco high end restaurant. Why was this ‘move’ so powerful at conveying culture? 

First, every driver was more inclined to spread word-of-mouth, they became ambassadors for the UberCab brand. Would it have been as efficient if they gave them company merch, money-based enticements or official guidelines and asked to spread the word to help recruit more drivers? Maybe. Would it have been as efficient in building the brand? Certainly not. 

Second, this event nurtured their universe: luxury. It gave the drivers a reason to believe they worked for, and had to deliver, a high-end service. In the words of Senior VP of Global Operations, Ryan Graves: “Our goal for all UberCab users,… is for you to feel like a baller every time you use UberCab.” Or as their early ad campaign suggested with it’s trademarked tagline: “Everyone’s private driver”. 

Growth was on its way, and creating events like this was no longer an option, so Uber started it’s referral program: ‘When a driver refers someone by sharing their personal code, and the referred person becomes a new driver, the referrer earns a bonus reward.’ A growth tactic used to reinforce the culture.

At this point in Uber’s history, it’s obvious that it was about a ‘chic deluxe’ service with an emphasis on making the drivers feel special or at least hold them in high regard. 

Some might remember, in the early days of the company, when you’d take an Uber, you’d expect a cordial chauffeur, sometimes even snacks and bottles of water or soda… it was standard.

As per the premise of this chapter, culture didn’t last. With growth, they reworked or introduced new services like Uber X, Uber Pool,… The mission changed obviously, “Uber started out as everyone’s private driver. Today we aspire to make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere and for everyone” the CEO wrote in a 2016 blog post.

For some, there’s something broken with the Uber of today. They adhered to the idea of being able to book a nice ride from point A to point B on their smartphone. Earlier on, taking an Uber was a special moment (yet affordable), which felt safer, more exclusive and overall different from the common taxi experience. Now if you don’t take Uber Black you can barely hope the driver plays the musical genre you like. And with all the bad press Uber has had since its launch, their pristine image has tarnished. 

In June 2020, Uber terminated their referral programs (for drivers and riders alike). What once was a ‘high engagement tactic’ has just been discontinued.

Even if you look at the popular term: “uberization” (Wikipedia: a neologism describing the commoditization of an existing service-based industry by new participants using computing platforms, such as mobile applications, in order to aggregate transactions between clients and providers of a service, often bypassing the role of existing intermediaries as part of the so-called platform economy) it is far from holding the spirit of the luxury promise of Uber’s early days.

All this, to demonstrate that there is absolutely no point in trying to ‘freeze your culture’. By all means, I’m not using this story to bitch about Uber, I mean… reaching a $78 billion market cap. by November 2020… they’re doing wonderful when it comes to financial success.

What I hope you get out of this, is that you can’t be too rigid about it because companies are in constant evolution and so is their culture. All you can do, really, is take a momentary snapshot of yours and if you like what you see, deploy tactics that might help preserve that desired result.

So what is Company Culture then?

When reading about Culture I came across wording such as: “passionate people, attract amazing people, aspirations, values,…and such”.

It shows, amongst other things, that the corporate world has changed (the world in general if we are lucid).

With connectivity, internet and technological progress we now try to find in ‘our work’, an activity that is part of, and balanced with, our personal life and interests. As technology makes knowledge more accessible and widespread, you can now get a certificate at the prestigious MIT from a small village in India, provided that you have a decent enough internet connection and some money for the tuition fees (warning, it’s not that cheap). You can be in a third-world country and play a Youtube video that explains quantum physics or listen to the full audiobook of ‘The Art of War, by Sun Tzu’. Try to chat with the artificial intelligence GPT-3 and get a grasp on how far we’ve gone since the beginnings of, now, tech giants like Google in 1998 or Amazon in 1994. Hell, did you know you can access the same production lines as the giant clothing company H&M? A quick google search on “Dird Group” and you have access to one of their ‘800 independent suppliers’ which by the way also works with C&A, M&S (what’s up with two-lettered-and-a-hyphen companies?), Tesco, Walmart,…and more.

The world has changed and it comes as no surprise that we, as human beings, tend to prioritize work environments that share our beliefs and values now that we’re connected to the entire world (in where we work but also in what we buy… look out for our next dossier about brand and branding). BUT, in general the workplace has yet to evolve and catch up. Too many organizations are still behaving in ways that aren’t up to date.

So, about culture…here’s a lead:

Culture might be the answer to the (future) employee’s question: What is it like to work at this company? (where the ‘Brand’ answers the customer’s question: Why should I care about your company?).

Naturally these two notions (culture and brand) are intertwined. There should be one coherent narrative between your culture, your products (or services) and your brand. 
Back in the days, Simon Sinek said something along the lines of: “Trust is a feeling…trust comes from a sense of shared values and beliefs….” which is actually true. Trust isn’t a value you can display, it’s a result. The same mechanic applies to Culture.

Company Culture isn’t the intent, it’s the result. The result of shared values, consistent behaviours and actionable cultural tactics.

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