During a mentoring session with new recruits, the nuanced topic of culture was an oft-repeated theme. “What is the culture of the organization like?” and “how do we fit in?” It set me thinking. While we all understand culture intuitively, cognitively speaking, there is hardly an area which is more difficult to articulate. Having been a student of sociology, I found the textbook definition somewhat abstract. And, just when I was searching for the simplest definition of the term, serendipity (in the form of a millennial) helped me – culture is the “way of life” in organizations.

The inevitable next query is “how do we create a positive work culture?” Based on my research, I gleaned the following:

Break the ice – colleagues who work together for months aren’t likely to enjoy themselves if they cannot even relate to the ones they spend most of their waking hours with. Consciously encourage team bonding through a mix of on-site & off-site events – the socialization process will, through sheer repetition, show those who cannot conform to the ethos of the firm, and the ones who are likely to last the distance. A case in point is a mentee of mine who found it difficult to get going in a context wherein “asking for help” was not seen as a sign of weakness, but, was, in fact, seen as a display of leadership. Once he attended a few events, he imbibed the concept, and went on to not only enjoy himself but make a significant contribution to the firm.

Clearly communicate expected behaviors (aka values) – in some organization, for instance, energy and a hard-nosed “edge” are very desirable traits – unless communicated to everyone down the line, individual interpretations (ranging from “do I come across as too aggressive” to “was I too soft”) can create silos of varying levels of energy.

Standardize the physical environment - no wonder chains such as McDonald’s spend so much on training & creating the same feel all over the world - customers, suppliers, employees all know what to expect. The result is a wonderful expression of the same positive values, no matter which outlet you walk into.

Employees as role models – a successful CEO once told me “why spend so many marketing dollars on a celebrity when it costs far less to have one of your own as an endorser – it just motivates everyone that those who are making a real difference to the customer are the ones who get to be the face of the firm.” This creates a virtuous cycle of performance, aspiration, recognition as there is a tremendous sense of positivity all the way from the head to the tail.

Work is fun – Look no further than Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, whose four cornerstone principles have spawned several management theories, wherein an activity as mundane as selling fish is converted into a mission full of fun!

Lead from the front – leaders need to walk the talk….be it vibrancy, a positive attitude, open & transparent approach et al, culture has a very funny way of being a top-down concept at times. The tone at the top leads to the echo at the bottom.

As they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast. A positive work culture goes a long way towards motivating employees. When employees bring in an inspired, mission-centric approach to work as a result, the firm acquires a huge competitive advantage! No wonder firms spend so much time, effort and money on understanding, propagating and evolving their culture.

Let me sign off with a wonderful quote from Howard Schultz – “In this ever-changing society, the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. They are real and sustainable. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit, not an ad campaign. The companies that are lasting are those that are authentic.”    


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