Culture isn't good or bad, it's right or wrong

May 8, 2019
Culture isn't good or bad, it's right or wrong

Guest post by Jayne Chace, Advisory Board Member at Citicourt & Co.

However fantastic your personal expertise may be, if your personal code isn’t in harmony with the vision and values of the people making the company management decisions, then each day will be a struggle.

Corporate culture isn’t easily defined – and its importance vis-à-vis financial success is vastly under-rated if not ignored! Corporate culture isn’t just a set of rules or list of business aspirations. It is integral to the brand in that it is the soul of a company that attracts and retains the people who are spiritually aligned. In big companies the culture serves as the framework for delineating the behaviour expected from its employees and by the customers. In small companies the culture tends to be more fluid and emanates from the few top decision-makers during the growth spurt until company size requires behaviour to be codified.

My first foray into business was a Boston technology start up offering project management software where I joined as employee #7. While my main role was communications, I took on other jobs (as in any start-up) from finding software bugs to opening offices in Europe. In other words, it was a typical vibrant, entrepreneurial culture where the clock became merely a wall decoration, the office morphed into your primary residence and dress code was unspecified.

Three years later the company was acquired by a global company whose “bible” mandated that executives wore only navy, black or grey suits with white or pale blue shirts. It assumed execs were male and so outlined the acceptable conversation topics should a wife be invited to attend a company event. As an ambitious female, the rigid hierarchical culture was anathema to my more spontaneous style so I joined Digital Equipment Corp (DEC), which was matrix managed and had only one rule: Do the right thing. Interestingly, both companies were very successful yet the corporate cultures were polar opposites. Even in sales – the one area usually identical in every company – was different: DEC did not pay any commissions on the CEO/founder’s belief that sales people had families who depended on a steady income and everybody in the company was on the team that contributed to success.

Years later when revenues slipped and shareholders demanded redundancies to cut costs, DEC CEO Ken Olsen refused to fire people just to meet short term financial targets. So they fired him... and then the exodus of top employees started because the corporate culture totally changed and the company spiralled into oblivion... except for the DEC spirit that amazingly lives on in its former employee groups.

As a calculated risk taker who thinks (and often acts) outside the proverbial box, I personally thrived in the DEC meritocracy. Thereafter, I chose my companies with care and learned from a few mistakes, such as thinking that I – as Chief Marketing Officer leading by example – could transform a corporate culture by myself. It is the entire team at the top, starting with the CEO, who sets the tone for what is acceptable corporate behaviour and lives the values that motivate employees to exceed expectations, to accept salary freezes when required, etc. Demanding economy flights for cost cutting reasons and then allowing “favourite” managers to fly business class or making redundancies while certain groups hold expensive internal dinner meetings or attend strategy sessions at lavish resorts only elicits contempt for the hypocrisy that is rapidly fuelled via social media.

While some people have linear careers, I am not one of them. I intentionally select roles with big needs and challenges – launching  companies/product/services, IPO/exit strategies, M&A integration, turnaround and change management. With this variety of experiences, I have come to appreciate the importance of corporate culture as a requisite component of and critical success factor in building positive brand equity and corporate trust and loyalty both internally and externally. Nobody goes that extra mile unless they believe in the company.

As per the American cliché, leaders need to “walk the talk”. As recent business controversies have illustrated, it might be legal to generate profit in one country and book it in another, but the action isn’t consistent with a corporate brand value that promises to be transparent or do no evil. When corporate messages run counter to the cultural expectation, the best talent walks out the door and the customers wonder if the company is really the right business partner.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

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