Posted by Bill Dann

The importance of corporate culture

Readers who have been clients know that we give considerable emphasis to defining what James Collins and Jerry Porras define as “core ideology”, namely purpose, vision and values. In their book, Built to Last and in the wonderful summary article, “Building Your Company’s Vision”, the authors make the point that these elements “define the enduring character of an organization” and that “it is more important to know who you are than where you are going, or where you are going will change as the world around you changes”. “Core ideology provides the glue that holds an organization together as it grows, decentralizes, diversifies, expands globally, and develops workplace diversity”.

What we see in practice

Over thirty plus years of consulting, it has become crystal clear that without clarity and integrity of core ideology, no organization, no plan, no project will go forward successfully. Rather, efforts to reach lofty goals will be derailed by lack of commitment, disagreement and confusion.

The foundation of any significant effort by a group lies in understanding why we are doing it, what success looks like, alignment on strategies/efforts needed to get there.

I was recently asked to work with a group to develop a plan for a large-scale undertaking that represented meaningful change. In the weeks leading up to the project, disruption in the ranks mounted (a common reaction to impending but unknowable change). So, we changed the game plan to instead essentially define what we could call the “core ideology” of the project. But, within minutes of my initial interaction with the group, not even this outcome was achievable. Years of trying to move forward without having these elements defined had resulted in enough chaos and perceived lack of leadership that employees did not feel safe. So, I backed off even further to develop a set of agreements that, if adhered to, would create safety for a time so that the “core ideology” could be defined.

How to build and keep alive corporate culture

This question has become a fascination and a challenge for me. My goal for the year is to complete additional research and thinking on the question, and then to develop a set of newsletters on the subject.

But for now, let me share with you a few examples of how corporate culture is built and maintained:

  1. In his book on Southwest Airlines, Lead with LUV, Ken Blanchard talks about one of the core values of Southwest Airlines, namely, “Fun-LUVING Attitude”. Ken asks his co-author and President Emeritus of Southwest how she instills that attitude. She replied that the interview for every new hire is conducted with several Southwest employees. If, during that interview, the candidate cannot make the potential fellow employees laugh, they are not hired. Simple, but brilliant. And, you can see that attitude and core value on every Southwest flight. Do you think it contributes to their success? No question.
  2. A client I worked with for years began every board meeting with a prayer followed by a review of PowerPoint slides that displayed the purpose, values, vision and strategic plan for the company. In short, before the board got down to work, they reviewed why they existed, what they believed in, where they were going and the strategies they had committed to to get there. This process enabled board members to effectively “put on their hat” to begin each meeting.
  3. Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 2.36.13 PMA friend of mine who works with an economic research firm in Anchorage became impassioned about corporate culture and led the organization through a process of defining core values. But rather than just have them on paper or in a picture frame in the conference room, he emblazoned them on the wall at the entrance to the firm. Clever and no doubt effective. (My thanks to Jonathan King and the team at Northern Economics for permission to share this photo.)

For me, the more public you make your core values, the more they will be strengthened and the more leadership will be challenged if the organization is not living them. To keep the values and the organization alive, make them ever present.

Your thoughts and experience?

I would be interested to hear your questions or to learn of your experience with defining and maintaining corporate culture. You can reach me via e-mail. I pledge to keep you posted on what I learn going forward.


When we have more, we’ll let you know

Interested mainly in strategic planning? Fill in your name and email address below. We will send you updates as new tools and articles are put on the PGS site that deal with strategic planning.