Culture Is Where It's At

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

-Peter Drucker

Most everyone has heard the above phrase. Its the mantra of the culture movement in business today.

Pacman culture east strategy for breakfast

Culture is such a huge topic right now. Its right up there with employee engagement, innovation and disruption.

I mean I'm sold! I get that it's important. I think just about everyone is convinced. The case for workplace culture as been made and made well. So many companies are working very hard to create great workplaces defined by their cultures and how employees feel within them.

Why? Because cohesive groups are better than the sum of their parts. But not all groups are created equal. There was a Harvard study done that compared similar groups that were only really different in culture, weak and toxic compared to healthy and strong. The strongest cultures outperformed the weak cultures by 765% in revenue over a 10 year period!

Importance of organizaitonal culture

The proof is in the pudding.

But what I've been wondering is, what exactly is culture, what does an effective one look like and how do you enable its creation?

The common definition I've found so far is simply that a culture is a collective set of mindsets, beliefs, attitudes that drive the actions of a group of people. Ok, well that's pretty straightforward. But the hard part is building it intentionally and successfully.

Great ones ultimately are defined by their performance.

The good news is you make the test and the answers to the test (for the most part). Any given organization can set a lot of their own bars for success and can measure it in so many different ways. Of course there's the common measures like revenue, profit and debt. Everyone has to make sure their finances are in order. But it definitely should not stop there.

One company called Berry Wehmiller is an American manufacturing company that has grow to over 70 companies through acquisition. By all traditional measures it is very successful. It's leader, Bob Chapman, also wants it to be a highly conscious and human centered organization as well with a fulfilling and sought after culture. So to know if they are doing a great job of valuing and uplifting their employees Bob suggested they measure the divorce rate of their employees. Now that pretty unorthodox!

Of course performance is important but that comes via way of building a strong culture that people want to be apart of and can thrive in. Start with setting the bar where you want it for the basics and then add in the measurable components that more specifically showcase your culture, or what you want it to be.

A Model for Culture

Organizational Health

Pat Lencioni designed this model and named it the Organizational Health model and its a great roadmap for building organizational culture.

The first part part is about having a cohesive leadership team.

We talked teamwork in the last post where I pointed out that a team is a community, often within a larger community, and is the foundation for human and organizational greatness. So it makes sense that Pat listed this as the first step in building a great culture.

Next is to create clarity. Clarity of purpose, goals, values, roles, norms and business function, product and/or industry or the "Why, How and What". All the basic and crucial stuff that you would think every organization and person within would know but unfortunately its rarer than you think.


I took a page out of Simon Sinek's books Start With Why and Find Your Why.

Golden Circle

Why unites us. Why inspires us. When people have a connection through purpose, cause or belief its very powerful.

A commonality in so many writings, theories, books and approaches on teams, group dynamics and culture has an element of purpose and mission.

The reason is that's where we get our energy as humans. It's built into us. We're made to make impact and have meaning in our lives. That meaning is different from person to person, but it's there and built into us. Great organizations with great cultures tap into that purpose and align and nurture it like crazy to enable greatness.


I mentioned the "How" several different times in different posts but it's most applicable to culture. It's the foundation of culture.

Part of "How" is innate and not unique to a given group. Dan Coyle talks about these elements in his book the Culture Code. He found that high performing cultures had commonalities.

They are:

  1. Ensure Safety

  2. Share Vulnerability

  3. Build Vision

These are the elements that Coyle found that every great culture had. So these are crucial pillars to start with when building a culture.

Then there's the stuff that is unique to a given group. The obvious one is the purpose and vision. Nearly every team or group has a different purpose. There in lies some of the biggest differences needed in things like skills and talents for that particular group. These differences are in other things too like value systems and world views. Ray Dalio says in his book Principles that bringing someone into your organization with a competing value system is a recipe for disaster. He's tried in his company Bridgewater and found that mindsets, skills and blindspots are easier to change in people than deep seated values and principles.

Once the leadership team is cohesive and clear, then it can get down to the more challenging and tedious work of culture building which is in the over-communicating and reinforcing of the elements of clarity.

Too many leaders think their job is done once clarity is achieved, well documented, beautifully presented and shared with the organization.

That may be hard work to accomplish and noble and praise worthy, but it is not where the bulk of the work happens. There's a reason Lencioni named it over-communicating rather than just communicating. Because you will feel like a broken record with how many times you say, remind and share the elements of clarity. Lencioni calls all of the leaders in any given organization CROs or Chief Reminding Officers, but people simply need reminded more than instructing.

I once listened to Howard Behar, the former President of Starbucks, speak at an event at Joint Base Lewis McChord. At the end with Q&A I asked him how many times he shared the phrase "we're in the people business serving coffee" and stories that illustrated the point. His answer: over tens of thousands of times.

The point was driven home hard and I kicked myself because I had been naive as a leader in the past and got frustrated when I needed to repeat things.

But I was wrong.

Everyone needs reminding. Not because they don't care but because changing habits and mindsets requires a lot of effort and reminding helps the learning curve dramatically even if people understand intellectually and are committed to the change.

The Leader

The leader sets the tone. In the Army, we called this "command climate". The unit essentially took on the temperament and values of the commander of that unit. It dawned on me most when I became a multi-unit manager. When I visited each location, even before meeting the manager, I could tell what they were like and what they valued and prioritized. It was palpable and powerful.

Organizational Culture Iceburg

There is no denying that the leader is critical in culture and culture building. And I agree with Dave Marquet when he defined leadership as "decoupling the success of the organization from the personality of the leader and building greatness into the practices and people of that organization".

So in other words, the leader is vital in building, maintaining and living the values and culture AND they must build systems and people that bring it more fully to life and do not need the leader's presence at all times to enable the organization to thrive.

Culture Building Action Steps

  • Define your "Why" and "How". And I recommend doing this with your team, or as much of it as you can to include multiple perspectives and to gain their buy in.

  • Then see your job as the leader to recognize great culture when you see it, build systems that help you reinforce it and lift it up anywhere and everywhere you can. The systems can be simple like seating and desk arrangement if you want people to work in teams or recognition cards that showcase the core values.

  • Work hard to ensure you have the great culture foundations too. Mission, style and feel will be different between groups, but remember that safety, vulnerability and purpose are core to every great culture.

Dave Marquet's Turn the Ship Around

Simon Sinek's Start With Why and Find Your Why

Dan Coyle's Culture Code

Devin Craig

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