The Importance of Culture in the Workplace

Adam Bryant: By now I've interviewed more than 300 leaders and I always just listen for patterns and themes that come up during the course of the interviews.  And I started hearing a lot of great insights about culture.  And I heard this one expression from one of the CEOs where he said, "We want to be the largest small company in our space." And I was really intrigued by that. What does that mean?  How do you do that?  Obviously largest in terms of size, smallest in terms of just that start up culture feel, and it just got me thinking about culture and what it means.  And the thing about culture: It's such an amorphous word.  I mean if you've got ten people in front of a white board and said--what is culture--you could put 100 things on it and they would all be true because it is such a fuzzy concept.

So, the more I thought about it the more I tried to frame the question in the right way about culture.  And I really framed it this way, which is: What are the biggest drivers of culture, the things that if done well have an outsized positive impact, and if done badly or not at all have an outsized negative impact?  And that was really the question that framed the book.  And I just went through millions of words of transcripts looking for the insights that helped answer that question.  In terms of why now for this book, I really think that culture is increasingly the X factor that's going to separate companies.  Because business is just moving so fast, there's so much disruption in so many industries.  And you can have two companies with a similar strategy, similar backing and the one that's going to win is the one with the better culture.  A lot of people don't focus on culture though because it is so amorphous.  People tend to focus on strategy.  They tend to focus on results because you can put the results in a spreadsheet, but culture is really the X factor that's going to drive the results, and I've heard that from a lot of really smart CEOs.

I wrote the book as really a playbook because CEOs just have so many things on their plates. They could do literally 100 different things on any different day.  They're responsible for everything and kind of nothing at the same time. And because culture is so amorphous it can be hard for them to figure out well, is this a good use of my time.  So that's why I really tried to frame it around the question of what are the biggest drivers so that if they're really focused on these things that they would see an impact, even if it's not super tangible, but just to know, based on the experience of hundreds of other CEOs, that this had an impact on their company.

If you're a start-up CEO you really have to be thoughtful about culture, because you're going to have culture one way or another.  It's going to happen on its own and every company's culture is different.  It's really the sum total of kind of the DNA of the people in your company.  And the metaphor that I like to use about culture is that it's sort of like cholesterol.  In any organization you're going to have good and bad culture.  And just like with cholesterol you're going to have good and bad cholesterol.  

The trick is to focus on the things that are really going to boost the good aspects of the culture and make sure that the things that are going to hurt your culture don't creep into your company.  And I've heard a lot of really compelling stories about that.  I interviewed Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. Now with this first company where he is the co-founder, he reached a point where he didn't even want to go to work in the morning.  He told this story about how he used to just keep hitting the snooze button, because he didn't want to go into work at the company that he founded, and that was pretty remarkable.  And that's one of the reasons why he focused so much on culture when he went to Zappos, because he just learned that you have to be deliberate about it.  And there are all sorts of romantic notions about a start-up culture, and many of them are true, that sense that we're all in it together, that there's an impact, you know, everybody's kind of picking up an oar and rowing together.

Not all start-up cultures are great, and we shouldn't think that they are.  There could be a lot of chaos, and if the leadership isn't focused on culture then you're going to get the kind of problems that Tony Hsieh had.  But it is important to try to hold onto that start-up spark.  Because what that really means is that sense that people are committed to the mission.  It's not just work for them.  They're not just punching the clock.  And to me one of the biggest drivers of that, one of the most effective tools for creating that sense is what I call a simple plan.  I think it's a leader’s job to stand up in front of their employees and effectively say this is where we're going and this is how we're going to get there.  The reason that's so important is that people need to understand how the work they are doing is going to contribute to those broader goals.  And there really can't be more than three, because all the brain science shows that most people can't remember more than three things a day anyways.  So you have to pick the right measures.  And if you do that then you will really tap into people's desire to contribute to something.

Because I really think as human beings we're wired that way.  We want to contribute to the team.  We want to help.  But it's a leader’s job to say this is the scoreboard and it's very clear and it's very simple.  And then you get that benefit of people saying I understand now how the work I'm doing will help us reach those goals.  Because if you don't do that that's when you get silo behavior, whether it's people operating in their department or division, essentially pursuing their own goals, but that can also play out in an individual level.  People are just doing their own thing and that's when you get all the politics and turfiness.  And silos can be really dangerous. One CEO said to me, "Silos are what toppled the greatest companies."  And even a company like Microsoft by it's own admission in the summer of 2013 said that they have a problem with their organization.  They have to look at the organization chart to create much more of a "one" Microsoft culture.  And I think as companies get bigger, they really have to contend with that.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Adam Bryant, the author of Quick and Nimble and the "Corner Office" columnist at The New York Times, on the critical importance of workplace culture.