Who Drives Company Culture?


I have worked at Softchoice for more than 18 years and one of the things that has proven to be most ellusive is to define the company culture.   Who creates company culture?  Where does it come from?  I recently had Myrna Ain at AchieveBlue debrief me on my impact on Softchoice Company culture using the Management Impact survey from Human Synergistics.   I was blown away by how useful the tool was.  Unlike many 360 tools this put everything in the context of how I was impacting my direct reports and how they experienced the culture of Softchoice as a result.

For the first time, I could see clearly the impact I was having on the culture of Softchoice.  And, the debrief helped me to connect that to some of my underlying beliefs and values that drive my actions.

Where does Culture come from?

There is no doubt in my mind that culture is impacted by every employee of a company.  That said, the leaders have more impact because of the top-down nature of most companies.  If you see the culture of any company as the generally accepted behaviours between the total employee population then a stong culture is one where the stories that people tell are clear in reinforcing those behaviours.

At Softchoice the company founders had a large and lasting impact on the culture even after they left the company.  The reason for this is that the people that were attracted to the company in the early days liked the ideas that they were espousing.  There were ideas like “we like to challenge the status quo”, or “we will build a company that we like to work at”, “we will use technology so that our people can serve our customers”.  New managers and employees who joined the company bought into these ideas and ideals and as a result reinforced the right behaviours and therefore the culture.

New leaders hired into Softchoice has the ability to impact the culture by impressing on the employee population the need for change.  The company has had two other presidents and both have impacted the culture because they were able to translate their beliefs into actions that benefited the company.   Without doubt the president of a small company can cause shifts in the culture of a company but they have to take the poplulation with them.  They hired managers who resonated with the new ideals and the resulting behavioural change.  They had to make the case that change was necessary and clearly identify what it would take to make the shift.  The only real problem with this is that it depends on picking the right leader for the challenge and the leader identifying correctly the change that must occur.

Is there a more scientific way?

A stong culture is one that has clear expectations for behaviours.  It must link clearly to the external brand and importantly to the brand positioning.   Without this critical link the culture can be strong but not aligned to the needs of the audience the culture is designed to serve.   Softchoice has a strong culture of responsiveness and this has served us well in the fast moving environment of technology products.   But, as we move into higher value services and more challenging solutions this may not be as important.

I believe that companies in the future will establish their brand position and then identify the key attributes of culture (shared behaviours) that will effectively drive that brand.  The key attributes of culture must be then connected to the actions of management so that the behaviours are reinforced and activated.  Surveys such as the Management Impact Survey from Human Synergistics will be used to identify the impact that managers are having at building the identified culture.  Periodic remeasurement allows managers to recieve training, coaching (to get at underlying beliefs and values) and the time to implement new activities that connect to the desired behaviours.  Eventually, however, if a manager cannot build the needed culture in their department they will have to be reassigned or let go.  Culture eats stategy for lunch and it must also eat managers who cannot perform.

As for me, I am busy contemplating the needed changes in my approach because I want to do a better job of driving the culture that is needed to drive clarity in our brand.

Categories: Management ImpactTags: , , ,

5 comments

  1. Came across this Harvard Business Review article today that I think fits into the brand and identity exploration discussions quite well. It’s based on a comparison between IBM and HP, but deals alot with what makes a strong company, what makes a strong brand, and where leadership makes a difference.

    I think my favourite paragraph was:

    The new CEO, Ginny Rometty has been quoted as saying that IBM believes it needs to persistently reinvent the value proposition and “take new things on.” And the CEO sees enabling a culture of collaborative innovation as key. “Culture,” Rometty has also said, has “become the defining issue that will distinguish the most successful businesses from the rest of the pack.” And “strategic beliefs may be more important than strategic planning when thinking about how you keep the long view,” she said. “Clients say, ‘What’s your strategy?’, and I say, ‘Ask me what I believe, first.’ That’s a far more enduring answer.”

    http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/10/innovation_isnt_tied_to_size_b.html?cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-innovation-_-innovation111312&referral=00207&utm_source=newsletter_innovation&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=innovation111312

    – Jeremy

  2. Great connection, Nick, between culture, the internal and external brand. And of course, it is so true that culture is driven by the leaders who model and reward the behaviours expected for employees to fit in and be successful.There is a lot of power there to effect change.

    I also loved the observation that ‘culture eats the non-performing manager for lunch’!

  3. I enjoyed the read.
    How would you describe the culture at Softchoice?
    Also, how do you think it differs between the branches in Canada and the USA, if at all?

    • The Culture would best be described as:
      – one where people take on challenging goals because it brings out the best in them
      – one where people are receptive to change, where we like to solve problems and shape markets
      – one where we see the growth of people as the way to grow the company
      – one that is trustworthy, collaborative and inclusive – all with the objective of serving our customers
      – one that is competitive and where high performance is expected

      Are there differences between branches? Yes! The District Manager in Softchoice has a huge impact on culture because they are the local senior executive. Every company with distributed offices shares this same challenge in creating a cohesive company culture. In situations like this the Management Impact survey or something like it is even more important at identifying gaps that dilute the culture and therefore the brand.

      • I love it. I spent ten years with another re-seller here in Seattle (Auburn). The difference in cultures between the two companies is remarkable. It definitely starts at the top and I thank you for helping create one of the best working environments I have experienced.

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