Define, Design, and Maintain a “Winning” Culture

If you ask any business leader what culture means, you will get a slightly different answer from each one of them. Regardless of your definition, the concept of “culture” is ethereal and almost beyond definition; but you know it when you see it, or better yet, feel it. Culture can almost be described as the “spirit” of an organization.

If you ask any business leader what culture means, you will get a slightly different answer from each one of them. Regardless of your definition, the concept of “culture” is ethereal and almost beyond definition; but you know it when you see it, or better yet, feel it. Culture can almost be described as the “spirit” of an organization.

A working definition of culture….

The characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, habits, and communication. Thus, it can be seen as the growth of a group identity fostered by “business” patterns unique to the group.

To me, it’s a lot simpler than that. I define it as how you communicate and act in line with YOUR group (you need to define your group).

Regardless of your company (new, old, small, big, private, public, etc.) you need to define your culture. Without a defined culture, you are rudderless. Like Odysseus, you may know where you want to go (home), but you don’t know how to get there.

Without a solid culture, your company will be scattered to the four winds. And watch out for Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, a.k.a. the Cyclops! Although friendly at first, he ultimately eats two of Odysseus’ team members.

Define Your Culture

Defining your culture takes some deep thought. Think Jack Handey. I like to start by answering six questions (5 W’s and 1 H).

  1. What inspires us?
  2. Where will we play?
  3. When is the right time?
  4. Who will lead us?
  5. Why do we exist?
  6. How will we interact?

The answers to these questions are the building blocks for defining your vision/mission/objectives (VMO), and ultimately your culture. Those two concepts are tied at the hip. Think about going on a trip: the VMO is your destination, the organizational structure is the road, and culture represents the guardrails.

Design Your Culture

Once you’ve defined the type of culture you want to create, you need to design it. There are two main components to consider when designing your culture: industry and business model. Some might argue for a third, organizational design, but that is more a function of your business model. So, let’s start with industry. Is the industry growing or shrinking? Is your industry technical or general? Is it mature or nascent? Is it asset-based or information-based?

These are just a few things to consider when defining your culture.  Now the busines model. Is it B2B or B2C?  Is it product or service-based? Will you serve one segment of the supply-chain or span the entire supply-chain? Will you be interacting directly with customers or work behind the scenes? Will it require bricks-and-mortar or be virtual in nature?

Depending on the answers to these questions, you will need a certain type of culture to be successful. Designing your culture is straight forward once you’ve thoroughly defined it – now and for the future.

Maintain Your Culture

Beware, your culture, whether you like it or not, will change over time. Endogenous (people, process, technology, etc.) and exogenous (social, economic, regulatory, etc.) forces will influence the speed and amount of change. That said, if you define and design the culture based on solid fundamentals, these natural changes will not affect your overall ethos.

In my experience, the best way to control your culture is to have robust processes and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). This helps in two major ways: first, it sets expectations for new team members, and second, it holds the entire team accountable to a certain standard.

Without a solid process it is very difficult to hold anyone accountable for anything. As is human nature, they will do things their way, based on prior experience, which ultimately leads to culture “creep”. Obviously, with each new person, your culture will change ever so slightly (I call this cultural dilution). And based on your rate of growth, your culture can look very different in a very short amount of time.

Case Study

As a mechanical engineer and former hobbyist, I loved Radio Shack – a mecca for tinkerers. The company was founded in 1921 by two brothers, Theodore and Milton Deutschmann, who wanted to provide equipment for the then-nascent field of amateur, or ham radio. They started in Boston with one retail store coupled with a mail-order business (a model proven successful by Sears, Roebuck and Co.’s rapid growth).

Initially, their customers were radio officers aboard ships, as well as hams (amateur radio operators). This company went through significant changes over the last 100 years, particularly with the advent of the modern transistor in the 1940’s and semiconductor in the 1950’s.

Theodore and Milton could be best described as one part tinkerer and one part hobbyist. They rode the early wave of electronics, where only scientists and engineers played. They created a culture of technical, like-minded people, that were highly knowledgeable of the available electrical components and how to repair devices like radios, phonographs, and cameras. This culture served them well for decades. Tinkerers had a place to shop where they knew they were speaking with experts that could help answer their most technical questions.

Fast forward to the 1960’s, when companies started offering solid-state electronic products (taking advantage of semiconductor devices such as transistors, diodes, and integrated circuits). The analog world was quickly becoming the digital world we know and love today.

Now Radio Shack was selling complete products that couldn’t be easily fixed or repaired by a simple tinkerer. That, coupled with the acquisition by Tandy, forced the combined companies to move away from the small hobbyist market and “push” solid-state electronic devices (walkie-talkies, phones, radios, stereos, TV’s, game systems, etc.).

Now Radio Shack was competing with the new “big box” retailers that already had a massive footprint across the country. As you can imagine, technical hobbyists aren’t necessarily the best salespeople. They are problem solvers, not pushy marketers, or salespeople. This market transformation caused a “culture shock”.

The hobbyists were the original store managers and could not bridge this chasm. For its own survival, Radio Shack was forced to replace the existing store managers with experienced salespeople. This metamorphosis caused a massive rift in the culture and ultimately ended up sinking the company. Yes, the company still exists, but it’s a shell of its former self.

Moral of the Story

Maintaining your culture is probably the most difficult part of building a company. But you cannot maintain something effectively if it hasn’t been defined and designed properly. It’s a never-ending battle and iterative process as markets change.

The key is to take the time to define and design your culture, create clear processes for everything that matters, and successfully onboard each new employee. Don’t forget to frequently reinforce your culture as appropriate (employee handbooks, communications, performance reviews, awards, etc.).

Odysseus and his team eventually made it home; it was just a smaller team than when he started.

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