Culture. Values. Purpose. Our promise to our customers. The way we do things around here.
The various definitions of company culture can feel nebulous and abstract. Culture is difficult to pinpoint and open to much interpretation. The challenge can leave leaders and employees feeling overwhelmed.
As a result, many younger companies toss up their hands and scratch out what sounds good on paper: integrity, transparency, balance. But are those values authentic to your unique company? How do they look in practice? Will they hold up over time?
Craig Forman, Lead People Scientist at Culture Amp, discusses company culture as an imperfect, constantly evolving ecosystem, which doesn’t exactly help to pin the thing down. But he shares concrete approaches to getting it right as closely as possible—for instance, embracing the values you already have, not merely the ones you aspire to.
Learn more about defining, establishing, and continuously revisiting company culture in the latest installment of our Startup to Scaleup series.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I have two definitions. One is my high-level definition of culture: how we do things around here. That definition can be applied to a family, friends, or going to the grocery store. Anytime we get humans together, there is a way we behave. What is fascinating is how we can flow from one to the other. You can move in and out and change your behaviors automatically. We're very clued in to the standards, how we behave in certain situations, how we act.
But the reason I keep that as a high-level definition is because I don't think it really does the job for talking about an organizational culture. Our CEO Didier Elzinga says,
"Your brand is your promise to your customers, your Culture is how you deliver on that brand."
That ties it together. It's the way we do things around here to really deliver on our promise to our customers.
For organizations, what is your brand? What are you trying to bring to the world? Do you have the right culture that is going to help you be successful and deliver? As you grow, it's going to help dictate the behaviors that make sure you’re staying aligned with that. How do you show up?
That goes to our values, which are:
When we onboard, we sit down and talk about values. Everybody who comes into an organization brings their own unique values. So if somebody comes in and says they value integrity, we discuss. ‘How do you see that value connecting back to the company value of amplifying others or the courage to be vulnerable?’
The point is we try to help our employees think about their own personal values and how they align with the company’s.
It’s like Velcro. We bring in all these individuals but if we can hook everybody together and have a shared agreement on how our values connect, we align.
Then we can deliver on the promise of our brand.
The sooner the better. If you have a group of founders, get that together right away. But I would say to that group: Don't just talk about the values that you wish you had. I see that with companies sometimes; they're putting values they aspire to versus what they are really doing.
Finally, you need to revisit the values often because if you’re a small company and you add a couple of people, those hires are really critical to your culture. When you get to 40 or 50 employees, I think you should probably be set on something. As you grow, keep making time to revisit your values. If you're connected to your values, the culture will be strong.
Here's one last thing I'll say:
Once you and your founders create values, they're not yours anymore. You can't just go change them, because then you're basically changing the code on people.
That's the tricky part for the people who originally came up with the values, to let go and say, ‘They're not mine anymore. They're ours.’ If you make the decision to change your values without bringing the company in, you really risk a rupture on that agreement. That can be very upsetting, even if the new values are great. You have to see it as a collective. Culture is about how people are working, engaging together.
It's a journey. We need to let go of this idea of perfection. Humans are fallible and there's a lot of variation. I think about an organization called Kendra Scott, a jewelry store chain out of Texas. When I went in, I noticed they had posted their values on the wall, framed in different rooms. And below were what those values look like in action. I thought that was really powerful because it's tying back your values to what they look like live, so people can see it. You see this in recognition and rewards, as well. They say what gets recognized gets repeated.
At LinkedIn’s executive meetings, they always leave an empty seat at the boardroom table to represent their customer. So if they ever get into a situation, they look at that seat and say, ‘What our customer says is right.’
I went to another company that had shoes all over the walls. One of their values is to walk in our customer’s shoes, and these were shoes of customers that had come to visit. I guess they either had an extra pair, or the company would buy them a pair of shoes. But it worked.
The one thing I would say to a leader is to work your values into behaviors so people can see you model them. Humans are highly attuned, especially around safety and trust. And if leaders are espousing one thing and doing another, it's not a safe environment. That's where we get a lot of negative behaviors that undermine culture. I've often said:
It's better not to have values at all than to have values you're not living up to. It's probably the most important thing a CEO can do, is to be the Chief Value-Liver.
I don't care if you're a small tribe that becomes a village that becomes a town that becomes a city that becomes a metropolis, culture is going to shift when we get more and more people together. It’s very important to leave space for growth. It’s about transparency, communication, and listening.
Tools like ours at Culture Amp can easily get lumped into just surveys, but these have been particularly designed for listening to employees, saying, ‘We heard you and here's what you can expect.’ It becomes a conversation between you and the leadership, a ritual of seeing. What happens is you get to a natural evolution together that allows for that growth.
We're going to change. Every culture is that way. We just have to do it intentionally. We're going to listen and it's going to be a conversation between the leadership and the employees. Then we can continue that growth together.
Take the Culture Amp logo. It’s an ensō, and kind of looks like the letter C. It’s a Japanese Buddhist tradition. When you put ink to a certain type of paper, you can see when you stop, when you lift your brush. So the point is you have to do it in one movement. An open ensō is symbolic of wabi sabi, the art of imperfection.
Our CEO chose that on purpose because it's about the process. It's collecting information, distilling it, understanding, taking action, and repeating. It's a cycle and a journey, and we have to let go of this idea of perfection. Just begin the process and go through the best you can.