Culture is the beliefs and practices of a group. The group members agree to believe (or at a minimum) commit to behaving according to the culture. Culture is not the WHY the group exists (that is purpose) – it is the HOW. Culture is not the same as values. Rather they are the expression of the values.

Today, culture is a buzzword for social ways of improving company performance. As a result, there are innumerable methods and programs to help you create and change culture. But beneath the glitter and smoke, remember first and foremost that culture is people. Here are a few other truths about culture that are overlooked at your peril.

Culture is established top-down. Culture is defined and expressed by the group leader and it is the job of leadership to organize stakeholders around it. If the leader does not define the culture, the collective group will fall into an ad hoc way of doing things ensuring an inability to focus, complete specific goals, and be inconsistent in how it gets things done. You know “chasing cats.” Another way to say this is whether you know it or not, every cluster of humans has a culture, intentional or not. Enduring cultures start at the very top.

Culture is not populist. The purpose of culture is not to give the members what they want but to give them something to join, something to unify around, something to take an identity from. Culture helps the collective accomplish the goals of the group in the best way possible on behalf of everyone. Culture itself is not processes and procedures, it is the reason behind the processes and procedures. Culture institutionalizes compliance.

Culture is conveyed through role models, not posters. There is nothing wrong with posters – they are just not enough. Acculturation does not result from knowledge. Culture comes from the application of the knowledge, and the developing the wisdom that comes from application. The members best learn to embody culture when they learn from and emulate other positively acculturated members through their daily work. And see the examples of their leaders.

Finally, and most importantly, culture is people. Culture only works when it is accepted by your members, when it is valued above individual talent and performance. When hiring, the first trait you look for is compatibility with your culture. People not culturally aligned within your organization ultimately will have a negative impact far larger than any individual contribution. In fact, the higher their contribution (or position), the greater the obstacle to an aligned culture. For this reason, a lack of cultural alignment should be the first indicator of a need to separate them from your organization.

If you keep these truths in mind, creating an enduring culture is reduced to hard work. It won’t be easy. Nor is success guaranteed. And certainly not painless. But very possible. Discounting these truths will give you the same work and pain, without the possibility of success.

If you’d like to talk more about this, let’s talk.



“You know, as most entrepreneurs do,
that a company is only as good as its people.
The hard part is actually building the team
that will embody your company’s culture and propel you forward.”

– Kathryn Minshew

Leave a Comment