Culture guide: How to cut through the bulls..t? (part 1/2)

When we talk about culture, there’s a lot of buzzwords, trendy slogans and wise nonsense. I’ve always find it difficult to cut through the fluff and get to specific practical ideas. That’s why I made a series of meetings on the topic, asking C-level executives, HRs and line managers “How do you do it in your organization?”.

Here’s a summary of what I found out and some thoughts on the subject:

What is culture?

No one knows 🙂 Ask 10 experts on culture and you’ll get 11 different answers. The definition which best suits my understanding is “Culture is the totality of beliefs and social behaviour in an organization.” Still, it’s too vague and I have no idea how to manage “the totality of beliefs and social behaviour”. That’s why I like the idea of key elements of the culture better – they are specific enough, so that you can try to influence them.

The key elements of your culture:

  1. The people in the organization
  2. The values of the organization
  3. Relationships: Team cohesion and the way people interact with each other.
  4. Cultural norms: The set of written and unwritten rules and customs which encompass 1 to 3

Six types of companies in relation to culture:

1. Values oriented culture

These companies have a set of values (or a clear definition of “the way we do things”) and specific instruments and processes to enforce them in their everyday work – from hiring, through decision making to appraisals.

2. People oriented culture

Instead of company values, these companies define common character traits for their team members (e.g. – self-discipline; responsible; proactive; direct approach) and hire and fire based on these criteria.

3. Not-defined strong culture

The type of company which has a very strong culture but no one has bothered to write it down. If you ask people from the company and around the industry “what is this company all about?”, you’ll get more or less the same specific answer. Everything in the company revolves around 2 or 3 strong values, yet no one has written values on the walls… A very interesting breed 🙂

4. Culture on the walls

These are companies which have a well-defined culture which no-one bothers to implement. There’s a big gap between what stands on the walls and what is practiced in the organization. If you get to know these organizations, you will find one of the following underlying issues:

  • It’s a type 5 company but the management has defined some values for pure employer branding purposes or because everyone expects from them to do so
  • The real values and beliefs of the company are not something you would display in public 🙂 or include in an onboarding program
  • The management just does not care about culture

5. 4-letter cultures

These organizations (usually the big ones) believe that universal company values are unattainable. As the company grows bigger, it gets so diverse, that it’s difficult to keep together all staff members with a set of nice words or a manifesto. Instead, they focus on profiling people according to position and division (think psychological tests like Myers-Briggs and DISC which give you a 4-letter profile of a person), and then choosing the right profile for each position.

6. Culture what?

This type needs mentioning because it represents a good percentage of all small companies. The management of these companies has heard about culture but this is how far their understanding of the subject has evolved.

*Of course you’ll find a lot of mixtures: e.g. a company which has defined both values and character traits (type 1 + 2)

A few lines about subcultures

If you company grows over 40-50 people, subcultures start to emerge. No need to worry – it’s only natural that different teams will have slightly different customs, practices and activities. Just monitor that the subcultures align with the main culture deck. If they don’t, they may become fractions 🙂

If you run a 10-people company and there are subcultures, it’s a yellow flag. Very often (though not always) it means that the third element of your culture is suffering badly.

Do you need to define and actively manage your organization’s culture?

Truth be told, there are a lot of companies with chaotic, toxic or no-no culture styles, which are still successful – financially, in terms of product quality, even employee retention. I believe those are the exceptions. A lot of good companies say they don’t do anything culture-related but they actually belong to type 3 (Not-defined strong culture).

If you are a small company (up to 150 people) having a strong culture will help you turn a bunch of talented people into a team by:

  • attracting and retaining the right people (the ones who don’t belong usually leave or are very easy to notice)
  • keeping your people united around common values/way of thinking/beliefs, thus happier, more motivated and productive

I would somehow agree with the Type 5 companies (4-letter cultures) – the bigger the organization grows, the harder it is to define a culture that is broad enough to include everyone and specific enough to actually be meaningful for the people. I will not dive deep into this scenario as the main focus of this blog are small companies.

Who should we (NOT) learn from?

Don’t copy-paste from the big guys – One of the most common mistakes, made by SMEs is “Let’s see how Google does it” way of thinking. Let’s say you are a micro company of 5 people. You see that Google allows employees to invest 20% of their time on side projects (I am not sure if they still keep this policy) and copy-paste this idea. You also adopt their remote work policy and vacation policy.

My bet is that it won’t work because there is a big difference here – Google does not care about productivity as much as you should. Google can hire ten more super geniuses to do the same job and it will not be noticed on their bottom line. On the other hand – you only have these 5 people and your success is very much dependent on how much productivity you can get out of them and how well you manage to focus their efforts.

Attention – successful startups! Some successful startups can’t stop bragging about their great culture. Very often their early success has nothing to do with culture but their ability to raise money, an early product-market fit, etc. And later, when things get tough, and everything turns into chaos and fights, it shows that their “great culture” was nothing but “it’s easy to be cool when money and success are all around”.

I am not saying that all successful startups have lousy culture. On the contrary – there are some companies that are made great by their approach to culture. All I am saying is – choose carefully who you learn from.

The people who influence your organization’s culture the most

These do not need much explanation but I’ll list them for you as a checklist. Write down the people who play the following roles in your organization:

  • Founders & the CEO
  • Recruiters
  • Line managers
  • People who do onboarding & buddies
  • Every rotten apple who stays in the company long enough

How to define and redefine your culture?

There are two main approaches to defining your culture. Use them separately or combined:

The top-down approach:

  • Get together with your co-founders and write down what this company should be all about. You may come up with a manifesto, a list of values, a powerpoint presentation, a whatever. Don’t stick to a predefined format, see what would let you express your beliefs in the best way.
  • Go the organic way: don’t define values/culture/customs in the very beginning but observe how you make key decisions, what is important for you in the day to day operations, what defines your relationship with team members, partners and clients.
  • Follow a structured approach – a good example is Culture Design Canvas.  (thank you People Portal :). You can DIY or work with a consultant.

The bottom-up approach:

Let the people in the organization have their say. Here are a couple of specific examples:

  • The Jeff Hoffman way – At one of his companies he asked all employees to answer on a note two questions: “When have I felt most miserable in my previous jobs?” and “When have I been the happiest in my previous jobs?”. All the notes were put on the wall with the following instructions: 1. Don’t do what makes people unhappy. 2. Do what makes someone happy at least once per month.
  • The Tony Hsieh way – At Zappos they ask all employees a simple question “What does the Zappos culture mean to you?”. The unedited answers of all employees are combined in a book and this is the official Culture book (culture guide) of the company which is given to new employees and other involved parties.
  • Ask the people two questions “What this company means for you?” and “What do you think this company stands for?” and extract the core values out of their answers

When and how to redefine your culture?

Claudia and Clara started an outsourcing company and one of their core values was “attention to every detail”.’ Two years into the business, the ladies realized that sticking to this value helped them deliver exceptional quality. On the other hand, they lacked speed. They spent too much time in refining every little element in each proposal, choosing the best words for every piece of company communication, etc. – details that did not add actual value for their customers or themselves.

This is when they made an important decision, changing one of their values to “focus on what brings impact”.

Coming up with a new set of values every year does not make your company innovative but a total mess. The rule of thumb is – if you are turning into a type 4 company (Culture on the walls), it’s time to change your behavior. Still, there are times when changing your ideology is a better choice:

  • The management is repeatedly making decisions against a current value and it feels right
  • You make decisions based on a core value but it feels wrong (like Claudia and Clara)
  • The company is entering a new stage of its development. A company is a living organism. The most important things for you at 13 are not necessarily (or hopefully 🙂 the most important things at 33. The same applies here.

How? The methods for defining your culture apply here as well. I would add one more idea:

  • Gather your people and start a discussion about what the different values mean for each person, how do they feel about them, what is lacking, what is obsolete. You can run the discussion as a series of meetings in the office or you can make it as a one-day workshop outside your usual environment.

END OF PART ONE. Part two is coming soon (meaning, in a month or so :). It covers:

  • How to assess for cultural fit when hiring?
  • How to live your culture every day?
  • How to assess your people against your culture?
  • What do we do with cultural misfits?
  • Time restrictions!

Want free delivery right to your inbox? Subscribe to CEOmoments’ mailing list:


About me: Apart from acting as a CEO of DEV.BG (the biggest IT community in Bulgaria) I help CEOs of small companies build their business. If you face a case I can help you with, drop me a message on LinkedIN.

Excuse my English 🙂 English is not my mother tongue and as you have seen it may be improved. Though, I believe that my level of command of the language covers the basic criteria in order for me to convey my ideas.


photos: Charlie Firth on Unsplash