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Nicky Logue
Nicky Logue 5 April 2016

Why you can't afford to ignore your company culture

'Anybody can copy a strategy, but they can’t copy a culture'. As a truly unique selling point and one of the hardest to control, here's why your company culture shouldn't be undervalued.

 Culture is something we’ve been thinking and talking about a lot lately at This is Milk.

As a start-up business, we've had the opportunity to work out the kind of brand we want to be, our purpose and vision and all that good stuff, but that's just the beginning. It's like creating a nice looking shop window for everyone to see, but what about what’s inside, the experience of your products and people? These are the intrinsic factors that make a business truly unique and this is where culture comes in. It’s the soul of a company that brings your vision to life, making it a reality through the working environment, the people and customs that evolve.

A definition of culture is “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.” Every action or nuance of a company culture forms another piece of the puzzle of what it’s like to work there. Having a distinct culture will help your people and customers identify with you and figure out whether you’re someone they want to spend time with – be that through working with or doing business with you.  If you want good people, you have to attract them to you, and keep them. 

Some science
Using the organisational culture model by Edgar Schein, there are three levels of phenomena that define a company culture:

  • Artifacts – the tangible things that can be ‘seen’ – your space, equipment, logo, uniform

  • Values – the stated values and rules of behaviour – your code of conduct, processes, public statements of identity

  • Assumptions – these are deeply embedded and hard to recognise from within – they’re the ‘unwritten rules’ your people share e.g. working late is the ‘done thing’, Friday’s we go to the pub, ‘big Jimmy doesn’t talk to anyone until he’s had two cans of Red Bull’….

Edgar Schein's cultural model

Often it’s stated that ‘artifacts’ is the only level that is outwardly visible to an observer ‘looking in’ at a company and ‘values’ and ‘assumptions’ are internal. But I would say that values are partly visible too. It’s become the fashion for businesses to communicate their value statements to customers and staff alike - see Innocent and Zappos - but it’s how your people translate and connect with your values that matter most and this happens from within.
 
It’s the invisible factors, often outwith our control that have the biggest influence on your company culture.
It’s what ‘I am’ not what ‘I say I am’.
 
Why is culture so important?
These are just some of the (pretty compelling) reasons why setting a clear culture is a positive move for any business:

Positive culture boosts the bottom line
A recent study in the Wall Street Journal states that: “a positive culture increases performance, but performance alone doesn’t create a positive culture”.  Companies with a culture that ‘engages and motivates employees’ will see better financial results, but a company’s success doesn’t guarantee a positive culture —and ‘companies that succeed without a positive culture are likely to see their results decline’.
 
Your people are your brand
The way your people feel will manifest itself through everything they do at work and this will feed through to your customers. Individuals who enjoy their peers and enjoy what they do are often a lot happier, and if they’re happy they are going to be more engaged in the company.
 
Culture is a true USP
Torben Rick says that the most important point about culture is ‘it’s the only sustainable point of difference for any organisation. Anybody can copy a strategy, but they can’t copy a culture’. The challenge is building a culture that people want to copy, and learning how to grow with it!
 
Culture is hard to change
Culture is deeply entrenched and so if you wake up one day and realise your business isn’t the joyful, bustling hive of creativity and industry you imagined it would be, you might just be too late to do anything about it, or you’ll have to take some extreme measures to shift it.
 
So ask yourself:

  • What can we do to make our organisation an enjoyable place to work as well as do business with?

  • How can we offer ‘meaningful employment’ to our people?

  • Do our people connect with our values and if not, why not?

Good culture attracts good people who in turn feed a positive environment, better performance, more good people and so it goes on… It’s a cycle that, as a business leader, you just can’t afford to ignore!

 The full version of this article was originally published at This is Milk.

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