People love to contribute and when given the chance will often surprise you with their brilliant ideas.

What is Corporate Culture: 4 Key Elements Thriving Cultures Include


What is corporate culture and how do I create the right one?

This is a question we should all be asking.

Corporate culture is the glue that binds your people together. In my 20 plus years of experience, I’ve discovered that it can make or break an organization. I’ve seen that, in organizations I’ve worked both for and with, a strong thriving culture equals success and a weak, toxic culture equals failure.

I’ve worked with companies at the leading edge of the marketplace and those white knuckling their way back from disaster, and what I have found is that those that get and keep the advantage put a strong emphasis on culture. They recognize that a strong culture is the foundation of a strong company.

In my work and travels, I’ve discovered 3 key elements to creating a culture that works for your business.

#1 Thoughtfully Unique

While there may be some core values that matter to many businesses like solution-minded, positivity, and respect, great workplaces bring their own uniqueness to the table. In many ways organizations are like old school tribes. Each tribe had a slightly different way of doing things. That unique approach may have been based on their geographic location, the vision of the wise elders or traditions that have been passed down through the generations. The next time you go to the history museum notice the different cultures of the tribes. Some were more communal versus individual, some valued efficiency while others valued visual aesthetics.

I would encourage you to think about your organization as a tribe. What is unique about your tribe, aka organization, that gets people excited to get up in the morning and come to work? What’s specific to your roots, passion or vision, or how do those three things come together?

Leading organizations recognize that in order for the culture to sustain and foster good mojo, it also needs to be unique to them.

For example, one of Netflix’s values, that translates into their culture, is Judgement. That translates to valuing spending extra time to find the root cause, not just solving superficial challenges. People receive rewards for it. At the Army Research Labs, whom I’ve had the privilege of working with on several occasions, one of their key cultural elements is Discovery. Given their mission is to “discover, innovate, and transition science and technology to ensure dominant strategic land power”, it makes sense for them. People are always asking, digging, going past assumptions to discover the possibilities or solutions.

After all, what is a corporate culture without the elements that make it unique to your organization?

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#2 Infused Everywhere

I always say that leadership speeches and plaques on walls don’t make a corporate culture. That’s not enough. In fact, in many cases . Think about the last time a politician stood up and made a statement you knew they would never deliver on. That’s how employees feel when leadership puts words on the wall without actions to back them up.

What is corporate culture without actually infusing it across everything you do? Most likely not the culture you want as the other more toxic culture begins to creep in.

If you want to create a winning culture, consider how your values are implemented.

That means everywhere from the layout of your offices, to your email communication, to how you hire and fire. For example, let’s say one of your cultural elements is Smart Collaboration - the right people, together at the right time, talking about the right things, that would mean that you might have a lot of small meeting areas in your workplace, not just one big conference room. Perhaps a few lounge areas and small tables peppered throughout. You may have software like Slack or Basecamp that allows teams to collaborate when they aren’t together and you reward people for being strong team members, not just team leads. You may even let people go that can’t seem to get out of the lone wolf mindset.

#3 Line In The Sand

Organizations with strong cultures hire and fire based on their values and their culture. It’s a line in the sand that tells them if someone is or isn’t a fit.

I once worked with a sales team that was struggling with the age old issue of having one top performer and a team of average performers. The problem was that the top performer refused to play nice. That person, in many ways, was the opposite of their values. Rude, manipulative and a lone wolf is how several people on the team described him. And here’s the rub for everyone else on the team and ultimately for leadership. In letting that guy get away with it, the message to everyone else was that the values don’t matter and that the guy was more important than the rest of the team. When leadership finally woke up and fired the guy, do you know what happened? The sales team that had been mediocre for years became a team full of top performers and the company doubled their sales in 6 months. Seriously, what is corporate culture that isn’t enforced?

A strong sense of what is in and out of bounds when it comes to your values and culture helps ensure you attract and keep the right people and avoid the wrong people.

#4 Element of Innovation

People love to contribute and when given the chance will often surprise you with their brilliant ideas. But, they need permission, accountability, and the tools to do so. Footers Catering has as one of its values, “do better everyday”. That’s their way of articulating innovation or continually looking for ways to improve. Leadership gives their employees many opportunities to do this and even give peer based awards for it.

At my organization, LaunchStreet, our definition of innovation is “people, each thinking differently about what’s in front of them to create differentiated value”. That’s a huge part of our culture. My team and I are constantly looking for ways to shift our perspectives on what’s right in front of us. I have cut bonus checks due to this. I have let people go due to their inability or desire to do this. Big opportunities have been created because of it. It’s in everything we do.

Today’s marketplace is changing at a rapid pace and the competition is insanely crowded.

Leading organizations know that the best way to not just keep up with the curve, or even stay ahead of the curve, but to create the curve is to create a culture that values innovation. I’ve seen many translations of innovation in corporate culture. It may be innovation, taking smart risks, curiosity, continually improvement, fearless - you get the picture. No matter how you articulate it or which part of innovation you focus on, its essential to a strong corporate culture.

What is a corporate culture if it doesn’t work to push the organization into the future?

The key with innovation, however, is to also give your people the knowledge of how they innovate and then to follow up with the tools to do it. Many of your employees' innovation muscles have gotten weak and need some strengthening. Some may even say they aren’t the creative or innovative ones because of their role in the organization or simply because of what they’ve been trained to think. That’s why we created the Innovation Quotient Edge Assessment. So that people could discover their unique Innovator Archetype and be empowered to tap their greatest asset, their innovative mind. Then LaunchStreet’s On Demand are the tools to continue to strengthen that important innovation muscle. It’s powerful stuff.

If you are asking yourself, what is corporate culture, I hope you are also asking yourself how to best leverage it as well.

As I’ve mentioned many times, corporate culture is more than leadership talks and plaques on the wall and it’s definitely more than ping pong tables and beer on Fridays.

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