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Discover Your Culture

Author’s note: this is part of a long blog series on corporate culture. Feel free to look back on previous blogs to explore previous material on evaluating, changing and establishing your corporate culture within the business context.

To understand how culture affects our business, we need to understand the existing culture within our business.

As discussed before, our existing culture originated with the founders of the business. From that point onward, however, the culture probably just evolved. My favorite example of an evolved corporate culture is no employee parks in the front row of parking stalls at my office. Nobody knows why, but the front row is always empty (except for my truck and the occasional client). When people drive by, they would look at our office and wonder where everyone is, are we out of business, and why we do not have any clients. Despite my encouraging employees to park up front, nobody will. It’s our culture and that culture is employees do not park in the front row.

So, how do you discover what your culture is?

It’s rather simple to find our what the culture is of your business – just ask. Well, it’s not that simple because as all bosses and senior management know, any question asked of an employee will yield the exact answer the employee thinks you want to hear regardless of whether it is true or not. But there are different ways to ask and different people to ask other than your employees.

My suggestion is three-fold.

First, ask your vendors or consultants what they hear about your business. Of course, this is dependent on your relationship with them, but I’d ask my banker and my accountant what they hear about my company’s reputation (for purposes here I use reputation and culture interchangeably).

Explain why you’re asking and that you want to improve your business model, so any information they can provide would help. Maybe give them a few rough examples but do not put words in their mouth. You are looking for honest feedback. My experience in asking my peers for information was that they thought what I was doing was such a great idea they wanted the same information from me about their business.

Second, find out what your competition says about you. This is somewhat tricky because it is not beneficial to simply call them up and ask. You can if you want, but I’d be suspicious of any information you receive – just think of how you would answer that question if they called you and asked what you though of their reputation.

But surely somewhere is a common client, vendor or previous employee that could shed some light on what your reputation is in your competitive world. You are not asking for dirty laundry, just what they think of your business; are you competitive, a taskmaster to work for, a cheapskate, benevolent, high priced, timely, always late, all talk and no show, accurate, creative, good competition, bad competition, good at this but not good at that, etc.

Third, find out what your employees think. This is the most difficult to discover. The easiest method is through exit interviews of employees leaving your service. Although mostly tight lipped, occasionally some jewel of information can be gleaned from this process.

A second method is to ask the senior management to ask the junior management to ask the line employees what they think of your reputation and the culture of the company, and then pass this information up the line.

A third method is the process of casually encountering employees and slowly building a relationship with them to the point you can ask open ended questions where you know you will receive relatively honest answers. The ulterior motive of this third method is (and we will discuss this in greater detail later) that one of the shortcomings of your business’s culture is the lack of any relationship between the senior management (you) and the employees who do all the work.

The final product of this exercise is a listing of what others think the culture of your company is. This is just a starting point for the real work of developing a productive culture for your business.

“There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated,” (Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Group).