Defining a Company Culture –What do you believe in?

by Anna Grady on January 20, 2012

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I spoke to a group of business school students at the University of Vermont on the topic of company culture and employee relations.  In preparing for this presentation, it got me thinking more deeply about how company culture evolves and who defines it within an organization. How people communicate with each other, how we solve problems and resolve conflict together, and how we grow and develop as organizations and as people are all part of this thing we call “culture.”

Reams of business school literature include business cases on how to define company culture. I offer that there are three main entities who define culture:  the company, the management team, and the employees themselves. Each of these groups has a responsibility to support, contribute, advocate for, and believe in the culture of the company wherever they may work.

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The Company’s Responsibility

When a company is just starting out, like NRG Systems 30 years ago, the founders essentially write a vision for what product or service they intend to create and how they want it delivered. That vision is the foundation for a company’s culture.  At NRG Systems, our mission and core values capture that vision and guide our strategic decision making and day-to-day operations.  Integrity, dedication, environmental stewardship, fair employment, profitability and innovation speak to every aspect of our business and how we interact with one another, our customers, our suppliers and business partners.  When faced with a difficult decision, I turn to our core values to ask myself whether we are staying true to their intent.  I find that our values provide a comforting sounding board for any situation.

Management’s Role in Culture

Managers help shape culture by building strong relationships throughout the company, helping to educate and serving as role models.  It’s up to them to inspire and model the desired culture. When situations arise where an employee is dissatisfied, or a conflict arises, it is up to the manager to help guide, support and facilitate a resolution. At least that is what we strive for at NRG Systems and how we expect our managers to support our culture.

Other company cultures might support a different approach. For example, I recently participated in a leadership class at Vermont Technical College.  A fellow participant described their management as ineffective problem-solvers. In fact, their own manager used yelling as their modus operandi. At NRG Systems, we support collaboration, transparency, and open two-way communication. It is the responsibility of managers to model this behavior.

The Employee Role in Culture

It is with the employees that I believe lies the crux of how company culture is defined.  Employees themselves—each and everyone one of us—play the most important role. We are in charge of our own behavior and our own career path.

One of the nuggets I took away from the leadership class I mentioned earlier is that the instructor continually challenged us with one key question:  “What do you believe in?”  The answer to that question defines how each of us behaves in our own workplace culture. At NRG Systems, our core values support what we believe in, and that’s what makes it a great place to work!

Challenges

Of course, it’s hard to get it right all the time.  There are certainly challenges.  For one thing, companies and industries evolve, grow and change over time, and so must their culture.  As top leadership changes, the company is faced with the option of continuing with the current culture as defined by the founders or making changes. Additionally, growth can cause enormous stresses and strains. For example, when new employees join a company, they immediately affect the culture. New employees bring experiences and sometimes “baggage” from their past work. Sometimes it can be a disastrous match. But new hires can also bring a breath of fresh air, adding positive diversity and depth to a workforce.

Reflecting on my UVM presentation afterwards, I realized that I could have talked for hours on culture.  I admit to getting excited about this topic. At the time, I thought I was spewing pearls to my business student audience. In retrospect, I might have been talking too much. When I asked if there were any questions, the quiet pause from the students led me to wonder if they were just reeling from a tryptophan-induced Thanksgiving holiday or simply overwhelmed by my insights. It was probably the former, but, I prefer to believe they must have been pondering deeply what company culture is all about and how it might impact their future in the workplace.

Anna Grady is the manager of human resources at NRG Systems.

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