5 secrets of a vibrant company culture

Jul 26, 2012

 A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.

As organizations like Whole Foods, Patagonia, Apple, Zappo’s, Motley Fool and many others have shown, having a vibrant corporate culture is a significant competitive advantage to any company.

That being so, why is it that many companies either have no discernible corporate culture whatsoever, or if they do have one, it’s either negative, or in the worst cases, toxic?

In my experience working with hundreds of companies, I’ve noticed five recurring factors common to every vibrant corporate culture:

1. It’s meaningful

A vibrant culture must be based in something truly meaningful. A bland mission statement is not the basis of a vibrant culture.

“We remove every barrier to producing the best possible product” (essentially Apple’s culture) is immediately meaningful, as is “We do whatever it takes to please our customers” (Zappo’s culture, paraphrased) – on the other hand, “We will deliver operational excellence in every corner of the Company and meet or exceed our commitments to the many constituencies we serve” (a real mission statement from an organization that will remain nameless) is meaningless pap – and will do nothing to develop a vibrant culture.

2. It’s externally-focussed

For a culture to take root in an organization over the long term, it must deliver added value to the organization’s customers or clients. Building exceptional products or exceeding customer expectations (Apple and Zappo’s, above) are clearly externally focussed, as are the shopper-centric cultures of Patagonia and Whole Foods.

Internally-focussed cultures such as Microsoft’s (“Maximize financial return” – my interpretation) or Google’s (“Hire the smartest people” – again, my interpretation) always lead to eventual decline as customers work out that they aren’t really the center of the organization’s concern.

3. It’s depersonalized

As Howard Schultz and Steve Jobs both discovered, a vibrant culture is not the same as a personality cult. In both cases, early in their career they built organizations highly dependent upon them as individuals – Schultz at Starbucks, and Jobs at Apple – and in both cases they learned that a lasting culture is one that is bigger than any one individual.

Are you building a culture that will last long after you’ve moved on – or just a personality cult that will disappear when you do?

4. It’s deep and wide

In my career I’ve been taken on thousands of ‘consultant walks’ – factory or office tours led by CEO’s or C-level executives who quite rightly, and proudly, want to show off their people and their business.

What’s interesting to note is how often those tours are highly circumscribed: the visitor is taken to certain departments, given the opportunity to speak with specific people, because of course, the proud executive wants to show the best side of their organization’s culture.

But a truly vibrant culture runs deep and wide in the organization – you can see and feel it in action anywhere and everywhere you go, and senior executives don’t feel the need to edit or manage a visitor’s experience.

5. It’s robust

Many businesses – especially, but not only start-ups – treat their company culture like it’s a Faberge Egg: precious, delicate, fragile to the point that it must be protected at all costs – protected, even, from the realities of business life.

I’ve seen companies refuse business because their legalistic culture wouldn’t yield to a customer’s needs; yet others fail to ship product on time because of a so-called ‘quality culture’ that is in reality just a form of corporate narcissism – intently checking, re-checking and checking everything over and over lest any small flaw or blemish mar the all-important corporate self-image

To be truly successful, your business’s culture should be less like sone precious object and more like a rubber ball – vibrant, flexible, robust, resilient – able to take a pounding and still snap back. Able to keep priorities in perspective and to let things slide when the circumstances merit it. Think of JetBlue, whose original cultural commitment to ‘out-fun’ Southwest led to an almost catastrophic melt-down in 2007 which ultimately cost its founder and CEO his job – since that event they’ve learned how to mix ‘quirky and fun’ with ‘robustly effective’ and maintain a leadership position in their industry.