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The Banking Royal Commission highlighted that culture is an absolute imperative rather than a ‘nice to have’.

In fact, every organisation has a culture.

The question is what sort of culture does your organisation have? And does it match the culture you want?


What is Culture?

Culture is how you do your work, it is how you treat your clients and how you treat your colleagues.

Ben Horowitz is an engineer, highly successful technology entrepreneur and New York Times bestselling author. In his latest book ‘What You Do is Who You Are’ on creating a business culture, he writes about the conversations he had with CEOs and industry leaders when he first set up his company LoudCloud.

He sought their advice about what to focus on in business and they all told him ‘Pay attention to your culture. Culture is the most important thing.’ But when he asked these same leaders, ‘What exactly is culture, and how can I foster the one I want?’ they became extremely vague.

He spent the next 18 years trying to answer this question himself and firstly discovered what culture isn’t.

  • Is it allowing dogs at work and yoga in the break room? No, those are perks.
  • Is it your corporate values? No, those are aspirations.
  • Is it the personality and priorities of the CEO? That certainly helps shape the culture, but it is far from the thing itself, particularly in a larger organisation.


The Role of Your Mission Statement

He then asked some seemingly simple scenario-type questions and asked staff how many of them could be resolved by looking at their company goals or mission statement?

  • Is that phone call so important that I need to return it today, or can it wait until tomorrow?
  • Can I ask for an increase before my annual performance review?
  • Is the quality of this document good enough, or should I keep working on it?
  • Do I have to be on time for that meeting?
  • Should I stay at the Sofitel or the Ibis?
  • When I negotiate this contract, what’s more important: the price or the partnership?
  • Should I point out what my peers do wrong, or what they do right?
  • Should I go home at 5 pm or 8 pm?
  • How hard do I need to study the competition?
  • Should we discuss the colour of this new product for five minutes or 30 hours?
  • If I know something is badly broken in the company, should I say something? And if so, who should I tell?
  • Is winning more important than ethics?

The answer is zero, none of them can be resolved by looking at your mission statement.

There aren’t any ‘right answers’ to these questions. The right answers for your company depend on what your company is, what it does, and what it wants to be. In fact, how your employees answer these kinds of questions is your culture.

Because your culture is the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day, it is how your team makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s how they behave when no one is looking. If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.

So, how do you design and shape these nearly invisible behaviours?


How to Get the Culture You Want!

Identifying the culture you want is hard. You have to figure out not only where your company is trying to go, but the road it should take to get there.

The culture that works for Apple would never work for Amazon.

At Apple, generating the most brilliant designs in the world is paramount. To reinforce that message, it spent $5 billion on its sleek new headquarters. At Amazon, Jeff Bezos famously said, ‘Your fat margins are my opportunity.’ To reinforce that message, he made the company be frugal in everything, down to his employees’ $10 desks.

Both cultures work. Apple designs dramatically more beautiful products than Amazon, while Amazon’s products are dramatically cheaper than Apple’s.

Culture is not like a mission statement, you can’t just set it up and have it last forever.

There’s a saying in the military, that if you see something below standard and do nothing, then you’ve set a new standard. This is also true of culture — if you see something off-culture and ignore it, you’ve created a new culture.

Your culture is not the values you display on the wall. It’s not what you say at a Town-hall meeting. It’s not even what you believe. It’s the way you do things. As per the title of Ben Horowitz’s best-selling book, what you do is who you are.


How would you and your staff answer these questions? Would your answers be consistent? Do you believe your staff would behave in the same way if no-one was looking? And would you?