Corporate culture - fact or fiction?
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Corporate culture - fact or fiction?

Future of Work

Corporate culture - fact or fiction?

May 26, 2015 Geoffroy De Lestrange

What is corporate culture, and - if it exists - why does it really matter? This is a truly complex topic because, as John Kotter wrote in Forbes"virtually no one clearly defines what they mean by “culture,” and when they do they usually get it wrong".

The first element with corporate culture is that it's something you observe, and upon which everybody seems to agree, without being able to put words behind it. I recently attended Cornerstone Convergence in Los Angeles, and all attendees with whom I spoke, customers and partners alike, told me how they liked Cornerstone as a business partner and "a great company to work with". Now if I ask myself what is our company culture beyond those compliments, it would be difficult to do more than listing a series of keywords and attributes. Yet everybody acts somehow according to this unspoken culture.

The very first moment you consider this very precisely is when you get to hire someone. The objective is to find a person that be both technically really good, and would "fit in the team and the company". The latter might seem very subjective or even biased, yet you know when someone might be "a good fit" or not. This means we need to go back to the very concept of "culture" to try and find a concrete and applicable concept. 

The Oxford Dictionnary gives 2 most interesting definitions

  • The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively: "20th century popular culture"
  • The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society: "Afro-Caribbean culture"

Both seem to apply to the concept of corporate culture. In a company, we are indeed talking about a particular group of people that share a collective intellectual goal, i.e. growing the company. This permanent achievement is based on objectives ("ideas") that you reach in accomplishing your tasks in your everyday work ("customs and social behaviour").

Those definitions seem to have 2 implications: 

  1. a corporate culture is shared, not taught
  2. it consists in an understanding and acceptation of the company strategy, and an acceptation to share a common attitude towards work and one's colleagues

There are companies where the entire staff changes on average every other year - apart from some people in the management team. Clearly, this sort of situation means that employees are absolutely not committed to the company strategy and that they do not feel involved. Therefore, there is no reason for them to stay. A first very concrete impact of company culture is that a shared culture with transparent communication will reduce attrition.

Regarding attitude towards work and colleagues, let's go back to Cornerstone as an example: the general unspoken rule is that we try to help each other as much as possible. Therefore, we also accept when someone can't help, as we understand he/she must be extremely busy at that moment, and there are no hard feelings at all. Reciprocally, if someone requires something from me, I know this is an important request for him'/her and I'll do my best to help out.

So when interviewing someone who might be joining the Cornerstone team, it is important to see what that person's attitude towards teamwork will be, and if there is a common understanding of this reciprocal support. Some months ago, I was part of the recruiting process for our team and there were candidates that were rejected for this very reason.

At the end of the day, the most important word to define a company culture might be "Value". This is exactly what we try to define here. You act according to values you believe in, without necessarily needing to phrase them properly. You know that some things simply "don't do" and that others are "a given". 

So what is the role of the HR department with regards to company culture? I have the recent anecdote of an HR Director who told me her company had been facing financial troubles, a huge employee turnover and a general feeling of "not-belonging" within the workforce. Her first action was to spend time in properly defining the company culture and mission. Not to define a new one, mind, but to answer the question "what are we here for?" This would be the 1st and most important mission of the HR department: to be the central repository of the company culture. 

HR has a set of levers to enforce it: recruitment of course, but also internal communication, training, defining a series of soft skills that all employees must have... As mentioned, the culture is shared, not taught, but HR will be able to increase the awareness and hence the engagement and feeling of belonging of all employees.

What does your company do to develop its culture? Please share your experience with me!


About Geoffroy De Lestrange

Associate Director Product Marketing EMEA at Cornerstone OnDemand


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