I’m often asked how one builds a winning company culture. There is no perfect answer to this question (at least not one that can be summarized in a blog post), but let me attempt a few answers and point out a few problems with this question.

I’m often asked how one builds a winning company culture. There is no perfect answer to this question (at least not one that can be summarized in a blog post), but let me attempt a few answers and point out a few problems with this question.

The challenges of defining a winning company culture

The first challenge is the definition of a “winning company culture”. There is no company culture recipe in the world that would work in every single organization. Let me repeat this in a different way: there is no universally right or wrong company culture. The “correctness” of a company culture is always related to why the company exists and what (and when) it wants to achieve. A winning company culture is always unique and will therefore always need an individual recipe.

There are of course universal truths related to the human being and the biological, chemical, and psychological truths related to human behavior, and it’s always good to understand and consider them when building a company culture. This also creates the danger of generalizations and half-truths, but let’s get back to that later.

The second challenge is with the term “build”. Not because it’s impossible to build a company culture. Many claim that a culture cannot be designed and changed, and I claim that it can and should. In reality, building a culture means designing and leading a culture.

This problem is twofold:

  • As we all know (we do know this, right?), each company has its own culture. It’s either consciously built and managed or it’s one that “just” happens.
  • The second challenge is whether we dare to be honest about the true nature of our culture or whether we just repeat the adjectives and superlatives of our target culture at the board meeting, hoping they would become reality.

If you want to “build” a “winning” company culture, the first thing you need to do is to become painfully aware of the current state of your company culture. This will not happen at a management retreat where you think about which animal or car model your company would be. Nor will it happen with an online survey that results in a self-explicatory spider’s web.

Company culture is such a multifaceted thing with many hidden layers that to understand it fully you will need a remarkably diverse toolkit and encounters between human beings (between the management and most importantly the employees).

The crucial questions in understanding company culture are:

  1. What (do you do)?
  2. How (do you do it)?
  3. Why (do you do it)?

The third question needs to be repeated several times in the process. A company culture can never be summarized as an animal or in axes.

Once you understand the current state, you will need to clarify the target state of your company culture, meaning the kind of culture you want to build. Here, it’s crucial to check whether the business and strategic goals of the company are in line with the target culture. I have seen it happen regrettably often that company culture is regarded as a nice-to-have exercise, separate from the real world.

Related to the previous challenge, we must also understand that changing your company culture will be painfully slow. Company culture cannot be changed by a committee decision or a note in the board meeting minutes. Nor have I ever seen or heard of an organization that has been able to say “well, our company culture is ready”. Company culture is lived every single day.

Company culture and employee experience

The fundamental mission of a company culture is to create a desired employee experience (eX). A desired employee experience is obviously not created for itself, but instead it’s created to reach the desired customer experience (cX). In order to build a company culture that produces the desired employee experience, we must genuinely understand what our employees see as meaningful.

For a long time, in order to better respond to customers’ needs, customer-oriented organizations have been talking about and looking for customer insight. It’s therefore confusing to notice that even though the war on talented people is getting tougher each day, employee insight is not talked about at all. Company cultures are being built and managed with universal assumptions, wondering why employees are joining the competitors’ ranks or why our company no longer interests the talents we need.

By employee insight I mean a genuine understanding of which factors are meaningful to the employees in your organization, considering work motivation and well-being.

From management and culure perspective, there is a big difference between whether your employees are motivated by money, learning new things, the opportunity to make a difference, or clear guidelines and processes.

I don’t believe that the birth year or gender of your employee will tell us what they are motivated by.

We are all individuals and want to be treated as such. Please consider this when building your company culture.

To succeed in building a winning company culture for your own company, you have to know why your company exists and where you want to take it. In addition, you must understand what matters to those employees you believe will carry your company to success. And as I’ve already said, you must genuinely understand the current state of your company culture and its relation to the desired target culture. On this basis, you can start building a revolutionary culture for your company.

Originally published on 21 July 2017
Checked 6 November 2022