You Can’t Build Culture

I hear a lot of talk about company culture as if it is something you can design or build, but you can’t build it any more than you can build a rose.

When it comes to a rose, you don’t strategically plan and create each leaf and petal — you plant the seed, nurture it, and watch it grow. You do what you can to help it in the right direction and, with a little luck, create an environment in which it can thrive and grow into rose you want it to be.

Similarly, culture isn’t something you can design or build for, but rather it is cultivated. Just as a rose is the byproduct of that seed taking root, company culture is a byproduct and an expression of the habits and attitudes allowed to take root from the onset of your brand. But you can’t grow a rose by planting dandelion seeds, and once you’ve got a weed, good luck being able to change it into a rose — you can’t turn weeds into roses. It all starts with the seeds you plant.

Understanding the heart and soul of your organization, who you are, what you’re trying to do, and why, could very well be the single most important group of questions you answer in starting your company. You only get one shot to build the foundation of your business and from that foundational brand, with a little care and nurturing, your company will grow and take on a unique life and personality of its own, always rooted in the fundamentals you first established.

What is Brand?

The idea I’m talking about is something we call foundational branding. Brand is more than just how you make your company look. Brand is the company. As much as your people, building and products are the concrete and tangible aspects of your company, your brand comprises the abstract and intangible assets of your company. It is the implicit and explicit messages conveyed in word, symbol, imagery and action. It is the heart and soul of your business. It is the intangible image created by the coordination of its many parts. Brand is the psychological Collective Identity of the organization. To say your logo and your stationary is the total of your brand is like saying your socks and your haircut sum up who you are. Sure, you may be able to tell a little something about someone based on these things, but it is the sum of the elements, how one communicates, how they make you feel, how they live their life and, of course, their appearance that sums up their identity.

Brand Informs Culture

Just as brand is your Identity. Culture is your personality. Personality is the moods and attitudes both observed and initiated by you in yourself and others. Similarly the culture of your company is the sum of the parts initiated by the manner in which those parts conduct business within the identity of the brand. Make no mistake, culture is every bit an aspect of your brand as your personality is an aspect of your identity.

So what do you do if you wanted roses but ended up with weeds? You have to pull out the weeds and reseed. No amount of magic will change those leaves. It starts with admitting that this spiky abomination is not a rose. Take ownership of the culture problems you see and admit that they are real and they are outgrowths of the seeds you’ve planted. Separate the weeds from the roses by Identifying what makes it a weed, or what makes good cultural traits versus bad ones. Clearly define the bad seeds that have grown into less than desirable culture traits. These can be habits like over-working, emailing employees on weekends, instituting mandatory fun activities, etc.

Next write an affirmation as a team. “We have done x, we have done y, we have done z.” Write out how it will be going forward. “We are not going to do x, y, or z anymore.” Then turn these into positive statements. “We will do a, we will do b, we will do c.” This is your manifesto. Then take the first two documents and in recognition of the manifesto being formed, in recognition of seed being planted anew, burn the old documents to solidify the changing of the guard from the old way of doing things, to the new.

The first step in all of this lies in being able to identify the culture issues. Being as that culture is an outgrowth of brand, it varies wildly from case to case. What’s right for one company may not be for the next. Because of this, no one will really know what is best but you and your employees. What can be valuable, however, is to have an objective third party that is adept at helping to distill out the collective opinions on the issue. Greet this challenge as openly, honestly and vulnerably as you can. You will never be able to solve problems you are afraid to name.

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