I was taking Peppi, my 7-year-old daughter to her grandparents, when she made an announcement from the back seat of our car: “Dad, I’ve started to like cheese”. This liking of cheese was a big thing for our family, as Peppi, still a growing child, wasn’t very fond of any dairy products besides ice cream. To secure the necessary amount of calcium for growth, we had had to be somewhat imaginative with the food choices; hence the introduction of cheese to the diet was excellent news for us. When I asked Peppi, how she had learned to like cheese, our back seat philosopher gave me an exhaustive answer: “Dad, that’s just how life sometimes is.”
She couldn’t have been more right, and right at that moment all the big pieces fell into place. Last week I had heard Sir Ken Robinson say the exact same thing almost as elegantly: Life is never linear, it’s always organic. We can’t explain and manage everything with 100 % certainty. What we can do, is try to design the environment so that the probability for the desired things to happen will increase. In business, the best way to manage probability in organic entities made out of people, also known as organizations and companies, is to affect the corporate culture.
”Corporate culture is all that happens when nobody’s looking.” This is how William Wolfram, the founder of DealDash, defined corporate culture to me. I haven’t yet found a better definition for corporate culture anywhere and believe me, I’ve tried. William’s definition captures the meaningfulness of corporate culture very well; culture affects everything and on all levels of the organization. For your organization, corporate culture can either be a strength or your biggest obstacle to success.
When it comes to corporate culture, it’s crucial to remember that there are no universal rights or wrongs. The corporate cultures of Google, Futurice or SuperCell are universally no better than the cultures of VR Group or Alko. The “rightness” of the culture is always defined in relation to what the company has decided to be and what the company’s goals are.
Every company has its own culture, whether it’s being intentionally managed or not. Corporate culture should always be managed, as it is very unusual for something good or excellent to happen by accident. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but in this case exceptions are as rare as ham on the Jewish Christmas table. I’ve come across many early stage startups that have intuitively made all the right choices from the culture’s point of view. What has become a challenge for many organizations, is growth and maintaining the corporate culture in the growth phase. In order to sustain the right and desired culture during rapid growth, you need to stop and become aware of the presumptions and building blocks that have lead your corporate culture so far. These elements have to be intentionally attached to the culture of the growing company; in spite of the well-paid, ex-Nokian HR Manager, who would like to build this startup into a new Little Nokia.
On the other hand, if you don’t – or don’t want to – understand the basic laws of the human mind, there’s always the chance to manage and build corporate cultures actively wrong. Here’s a concrete and easy example: if there is a strong belief in the organization that collaboration brings better results than individual achievements, the reward and recognition system should be built to support collaboration, not individual performance.
People often ask me, what is the ”easiest” way to build sustainable corporate culture. You can’t change corporate culture with bean bags, ball pits or any other circus tricks for that matter. The best and the most sustainable way to build corporate culture is to start with the basics, and ask ourselves, what is our purpose of being and where do we want to go. However, the following questions are the most essential regarding corporate culture: what kind of team do we need and how should we work in order to reach our goals? The answers to these questions will define the company’s authentic and meaningful values, which should be made real in the daily working life.
Sounds easy, right? Well, it is easy, but it takes a heck of a lot of effort, and you have to be systematic and persistent. It’s much like what my friend Kimmo Kedonpää has said about golf: “Golf is all about luck. The more you practice, the better luck you will have.” There are no shortcuts to success, so get back to work!
The writer is the founder and CEO of Naqu Oy, Finland’s first and only consulting company specialized solely on designing corporate cultures. This consultant, coach and inspirer has worked more than ten years with HR, leadership and management.
P.s. If you don’t believe that values and value-based leadership will bring competitive advantage to your company, you shouldn’t waste your time and money for trivial matters. Arvomme.fi (in Finnish) will create stockmarket-credible values for your company in just 30 seconds.