The great management theorist Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” While this is just the type of pithy phrase capable of eliciting a roomful of nodding heads, I wonder how many organizations have really moved beyond the platitude stage in terms of embracing the concept? Fewer than one would expect, I imagine. Saying culture is essential to the success of your business is easy, building one is hard.

What is corporate culture?

A corporate culture is about conviction, which is something you live out every day rather than aspirational values. From a practical perspective, a company’s culture is built upon a small number of core tenets which are used to define desired behavior, thought processes, communication, and decision-making within the organization. In other words, a company’s culture is its internal standard of measurement against which it’s activities must continually be compared. Successfully inculcating corporate convictions is a function of continual reinforcement throughout all levels of the company. There is no “executive immunity.” A junior employee must possess the ability to “call up” a senior executives’ actions if they are inconsistent with the expressed core principles. If we were to try and define the purpose of a company’s culture and core convictions in nautical terms, they are the North Star.

What it's not

Unfortunately, the idea of a corporate value system is too often associated with a ceaseless stream of company meetings, retreats, team building exercises, and ubiquitous sloganeering, seemingly designed to beat even the most enthusiastic employee into submission. While each of the aforementioned activities may be effective tools for reinforcing and maintaining organizational commitment to the underlying principles, they can’t be used in checkbox fashion where the completion of one or more is viewed as meeting a standard commitment — “Well, we don’t have to worry about that again until next year.”

The origins of culture

There isn’t a "one size fits all" corporate culture. It can’t be imported from outside the organization, since its function is to guide the operations and growth of the specific company. The culture of a business is an organic phenomenon, and, to be effective, it must be initiated and embraced by the company’s executive leadership. The convictions adopted by an executive team should reflect the elements of thought and behavior, which align with their long-term vision for the company.

Building a culture

For cultural values to be embraced, a constant level of commitment is required. A plaque on the wall or some bullets on the website will never enable defined cultural attributes to take root and grow within the organization.

At Compass, our four core convictions are:

  • Humility in/pride out
  • Continuous improvement
  • Actions and words are one
  • Asking why to understand needs from wants

These permeate every aspect of our daily operations. Before a new employee joins the company, they have been evaluated to determine if they are a cultural fit. Even the most stellar candidate will not thrive if they are not a “fit” for the way we interact and conduct business.

While we certainly celebrate exemplary cultural efforts through rewards and recognition, it's the consistent use of our constructs when they are referenced during the most mundane conversation, meeting, or decision that effectively defines what Compass Datacenters means.

Why is culture important?

From my own experience, I’ve seen how the lack of a strong company culture can result in the downfall of even the most successful company –take Nortel, which no longer exists, for example. All businesses experience successes and failures. Culture influences how the organization reacts to each one. If continual improvement is not built into a company’s DNA, success can become a given, meaning real innovation gives way to “tinkering” around — meanwhile, a new, dynamic startup suddenly moves into the spotlight. Along this same vein, the lack of a culture that values resiliency often finds failure to be the precursor to rampant finger-pointing, which has a deleterious impact on the company’s ability to overcome adversity.

More than words

The key to understanding the importance of a strong corporate culture is the ability to see it as the means and not the end. While it is possible for a company to become a success without establishing a unifying culture, maintaining it becomes exponentially more difficult. In a sense, it’s the metaphorical equivalent of building a house on a foundation of sand. In an industry populated by a host of competitors with similar product offerings, a strong corporate culture can be a true differentiator.