Building Company Culture

Building-Company-CultureWhile this collection is based on a foundation of the Third Culture through the eyes of me, a particular Third Culture Kid that has grown up and joined the world of First Culture “normies,” I have started to realize that this isn’t really about the Third Culture exclusively. In reality, it’s about culture in general, it’s just that the Third Culture is a collection of so many cultures that it is the melting pot standard that provides a general level of understanding and bridging acceptance that is absent in most other cultures. Of course, that still means that in order for you as a read to appreciate this collection, you first have to appreciate, but more importantly to understand, culture as a whole. What is it, what does it mean, what does it do?

I have been thinking about this immensely since my talk at the University of Warwick’s One World Week Social Integration Forum. I got asked a question about how a person can find a job in a foreign country they aren’t officially allowed to work in. My default thought was “well, I mean you can’t. That’s illegal and you’ll get deported and won’t ever be able to come back.” Of course, I didn’t say that because that’s honest and I am generally only brutally honest when I’m writing here. But what that question did do, admittedly without its intention to do, was to get me thinking about the problem that company’s have with developing a company culture.

Company culture is a word like “Green” or “Sustainability.” Everyone loves it, but the more I work and the more I deal with people using the word (I’m a marketing and operations consultant, so much of my working life is using words like that to boost internal and external support), the more I realize that no one has a single clue what it means. Companies keep touting their great culture and how amazing it is, cramming their mission statement and motto down employee’s throats, but when you step back and look, the culture they claim to have created never existed in the first place. It was an illusion, a facade, a fake. An idea that never had any hope of becoming anything more than the words on a piece of paper a new employee was forced to read once and immediately forgot about.

A good example of this would be a little start-up I worked at called CityVoice. The Angel Investor there was the founder of a huge company I’m sure many of you know of if you’re even remotely internet literate, the managed hosting company known as RackSpace. RackSpace had an excellent culture, and it was believed by many of the original team who started RackSpace who also joined CityVoice that the culture was one of the main reasons for their overwhelming success. Everyone loved working there, and everyone loved using RackSpace for hosting. It was just an incredible environment to be in regardless of which side of the table you sat at.

When CityVoice started, they tried to duplicate that culture that had made RackSpace so incredible. It was all they talked about, maintaining the culture, loving the culture, living the culture. The culture was everything! But the culture they were describing wasn’t the culture the office had. It was a fun place to work, sure. We had nerf gun wars in the office, had a fridge stocked full of beer, had arcade machines and couches, an open working environment where everyone was sat in the same space as equals, but this happy-go-lucky culture just didn’t seem to grip.

And when the culture wouldn’t stick, the managers got mad.

I remember one time, my boss at CityVoice who was on the founding team of RackSpace for marketing pulled me into a meeting and said that I didn’t seem to be embracing the company culture. As a Third Culture Kid, I honestly found this quite comical and had to choke back a laugh and a serious argument and education lesson about culture.  Of course, “culture” was so important to these people that I knew this statement had serious ramifications regarding my continued employment, so I chose not to explain what I know and instead rejected a lifetime of conditioning for this very moment. But I’m not going to shy away from that now. Too many companies think this way, and I believe that it is my job as a Culture Specialist to address a too-often misunderstood concept:

Culture, not just company culture, is not something you create at will. It is something that is created by the actions, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings of a community. One person doesn’t make a culture. A group makes a culture, and that culture is impacted, shaped, and developed based on the external influences of other cultures and individuals. It can strengthen a culture, or it can weaken a culture.

A strong company culture is created by doing everything the right way. Look at Google and Netflix, two of the most successful culture stories of any business anywhere. They both treat their employees with the utmost respect. Their vacation policy is: “If you need it, take it. No hours, no tracking. Just get your job done and be happy.” They have fun as much as they work, and in doing so they work harder than ever. They are happy with their peers because their peers are equals, even in corporate hierarchy. Everyone’s opinion is valid, and everyone’s ideas are the building blocks to their success. Everyone matters. And above all, the customer is always the primary goal. When your card expires at Netflix, they just keep your account rolling and send you an email saying “Hey, your card has expired. Would you please update your card when you have a chance? We’ve kept your account rolling, so whenever you have time. Your streaming won’t be affected.” In doing that, they create a support level from customers that makes employees proud to work there, proud to be part of the team, proud to be providing a service that the vast majority loves and supports.

Those cultures weren’t built by saying “This is the culture, live it.” They were built because a company started with an informal motto of “Don’t be Evil.” That external goal, the desire to do everything they can to help better their community and peers, is what created a harmonic culture. A  shared idea, a desire to be part of something more, that’s what created the culture.

Unfortunately, that’s what most companies and leaders miss. They keep their employees on tight schedules, dock them holiday hours for needing to go to the doctor, watch their email and internet and write them up if they leave 5 minutes early or come in 5 minutes late. They Big Brother everything and put no faith into their team to be good, hard working individuals. They reject customer complaints and ignore change because “we know best,” and then they wonder why so many of their employees are miserable, quitting, not doing their jobs, or are incredibly inefficient. They wonder why customers hate them, why their churn rates are so high, why they are sales driven instead of retention driven.

And then they blame the people for not perpetuating the culture.

When I was eventually asked to leave CityVoice for oh so many reasons, one of the main being that I was constantly battling with people to stop forcing a culture and start doing things right for a change instead of lying to our employees and customers, I started consulting because I couldn’t bring myself to be in a situation like that again. Now, I work no less than four jobs at any given time, one of which is always full time work, and the others are just sort of “on the side for fun projects.” And in all of those jobs, in all elements of the success therein, I have focused on my understanding of culture to inspire and create a sense of belonging for everyone I work with.

And it’s all built first and foremost upon my understanding of culture in the world, and how you can strengthen the power of your team by making them proud to be by your side.

It’s a shame, really, that more TCKs aren’t in positions of leadership. Of course, we are still a young generation, and that will change over time, but one of the most crucial foundations for success in a business is a strong company culture, and that’s something too few seem to understand how to achieve. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: It’s better to have 1 employee who wants more than anything to be part of what you’re doing than it is to have 10 who don’t care if they have a job with you tomorrow.

So, leaders of the world, let me leave you with this: Stop forcing culture. Make your people, both employees and customers, never want to leave your side just by doing the right thing, which more often than not you’ll see is as easy as stepping back and thinking “if I were them, what would I want from this situation.” Only then will you find the culture you’re looking for.

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JM-003-72-condensed

Post by: James R. Mitchener
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2 thoughts on “Building Company Culture

  1. lizsdv

    Yes! And you don’t even need to be a TCK to benefit from what you’ve written here (I’m thinking of my mono-cultural husband and his constant complaints about his work climate)

    Reply
  2. Mariah Agsten

    Interesting blog, James. I can’t help but wonder how many “traditional” leadership personnel you have been able to influence throughout the years? I agree with just about everything you wrote, but find that getting leaders that have a “status quo” mentality to see the rewards of not micromanaging their staff is close to impossible, but not a complete loss. I firmly believe all members of an organization have the ability to create their own culture, but leadership can be brutal and strike that down in a few very short seconds. I express to my HR networks that in the up and coming years, the newer generation is here whether you are ready to accept them or not. The most efficient companies will be those that embrace the change, not shut it out.

    Reply

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