Culture: Can a Company Be Successful without a Good One, and Where Does It Come from?

By Ken Zimmer
Director of Sales
Trivalent Group, Inc.

In today’s day and age, you see so many articles and blogs referring to the culture of a company.  Indeed, there are a variety of opinions about how to create a good culture.  But I think there are root questions to ask about this buzzword.  I am going to give my opinion on culture and hopefully provide some thought-provoking insight on this ominous word.

First, can a company be successful without a good culture?  Many would say no, but, in fact, as much as it pains me to say so, I believe that it can be.  I am not saying that, without a good culture, a company can kill itself from the inside out. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I am really surprised that there are companies that have what I consider a very poor culture and yet continue to be successful.

In fact, in our IT industry we have a manufacturer that will remain nameless that fits the above statement, in my opinion.  It is a very large company and has been considered one of the market leaders for years in their “space.”  The fact is, though, there is much churn in the people there because of the culture.  The culture is to pay employees well and hope that the money overshadows the constant pressure of the workday.  There are some people that work there for years…oddly.  I guess, to some, money is worth more than happiness and working for a company that treats their employees well.  This wearing out of people to press the business has worked for them somehow.  I myself don’t get it.  I would not work for a company that did not care about the employee as a person rather than just a means to a number.

I do get that most businesses exist to make money, and, if there are people not pulling their weight, they have to go.  There should be a balance.  True, we all want good people to work for our company, and just being a good person does not cut the mustard if you do not produce.  In the case of the company cited above, I feel like they do get good people and good employees, but then the culture either changes the attitudes of those employees or forces them to eventually leave in order to find happiness in a job with less pressure where they are working for someone who treats them well, not just as the conduit to a number with a fat paycheck.

Now, the truth is that culture means a ton in the success of a company.  The culture can be the difference between a mediocre company and a good one or even a good company and a great one. How so?  Well, to me, a good culture makes for happy employees, and happy employees are proven to perform better.  If they perform better, then that usually means more productivity, which leads to more revenue, etc.  You get my point.

It really is ok to have fun at work.  I am not going to lie…I have fun at work every day.  I joke with people all of the time, yet I get my job done.  It is my goal to make as many people smile in a day as I can.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not always tulips and daisies.  There are many a meeting where we need to have the hard conversations.  I have no problem doing that, but why not use humor and have fun in every workday where you can?

I am not saying that, if you have people that do not have a sense of humor or have fun, to fire them.  I do feel that defining what you want your company culture to be is important and that hiring the “who” that fits that culture and teaching the “what” is the right way to do it.  In our industry, many times I would rather have an engineer that knows how to work with my clients and knows how to communicate but possesses a little less technical expertise than one that is so technically brilliant that s/he does not know how to communicate with a client.  I believe that this is a part of culture.  I also think that if your company culture is not what you want it to be and you define it, there may be some very hard decisions to make on personnel.

There may be people that have been there for years that do not fit the culture that you aspire to.  If that is the case, then you need to make the tough decision on keeping them or letting them go.  Attitude is huge in culture.  If you have people that are negative all of the time and have poor attitudes, that will spread and bring down others with good attitudes in your organization.  Believe me, I have seen it on many occasions.  Nip bad attitudes in the bud as soon as you see them. If s/he is a person that you can work with on attitude and you feel that you can change them, it may be worth a try.  If not, cut ties.

Often, managers are trying so hard to not be the bad guy by letting people go that they lose sight in that frequently when people are let go, they end up looking at themselves more closely and often land in a company or position that they are happier with and like better.  I, too, have seen this first-hand.  The desired culture can be created even if it does not exist today within an organization.  It just takes a vision of what is desired and the courage to make the hard decisions that need to be made to aid in the drive for the desired outcome.

Where does culture come from?  Well, that certainly be answered by including every employee of an organization.  But my belief is that it needs to start at the top of the organization.  The leadership team needs to relay the expectations of the culture that is desired.  And just talking about it is not enough.  It needs to be a part of the way leadership does business on a daily basis.  It needs to be them making the hard calls on employees that do not match up to the desired culture.

Many upper-level managers think they have a pulse on the culture of the organization.  I am not sure that is normally true.  Often, when working with a “C” level person, normal employees will be on their best behavior and say what the C-level wants to hear.  People are frequently going to tell the upper-level managers what they want to hear for many different reasons (fear, self-preservation, or even their own motive).  There need to be different ways to be able to check the pulse of the employees on a more direct level.  Don’t just assume because a C-level hears from a person that the culture is strong that it in fact is.

The true test is how well your organization functions as a unit.  Are there “silos” within the organization?  Are there people that are always in CYA mode?  If so, that is a culture issue.  Also, do not underestimate the undercurrent of keeping a nice person on that does not get the job done.   Again, attitude plays a big part, but, if they are not getting the job done consistently, it should not matter how nice they are or how long they have been there.  The fact is, if you keep someone on for longer than you should, the people that work directly around and with that person will already have known for a while that they should be gone.  This will often create resentment and also feelings of “well, why do I work so hard when we keep this person on that does not pull their weight?”  There is so much to this, and culture is such a big word.

I have read many blogs, and Ron Alvesteffer, President and CEO of our partner Service Express (SEI), touches on this topic on a regular basis in one form or another in his blog.  Ron has spearheaded creating a culture at SEI that is known throughout the industry as a great one.  He is an amazing leader and really puts these principles into effect at his organization.

The bottom line is culture DOES matter, and it starts at the top.  It takes a company to be consistent in their views throughout the entire organization and putting it into effect every day.  It will not come easy and will make for some hard decisions, but, if you can foster the desired strong culture, it will all be worth it.  It will make for a strong company and also one in which you see people smiling on a regular basis.  Find me one person that does not like to smile….and I will challenge you on it.