What I've Learned About Company Culture

Imagine you're invited to someone's home for an evening. You're a special guest, meet everyone in the family (whether two or ten), get a personal tour of the home, have a pleasant dinner with everyone at the table, retreat to the family room for lively conversation, and leave after 4-5 hours.

How well would you be able to describe the culture of that household? What types of conclusions could you draw about the family, what their values are, how they live, and how strong their relationships are?

Now imagine that you're invited to the same home for a few days. Again, you do all of the above but you also observe the family's daily routine: what they do, when they do it, and how they do it. In addition, you're able to see and hear how they speak with one another, what words they use, and the tone of their typical conversations.

Same questions as before: How well would you be able to describe the culture of that household? What types of conclusions could you draw about their family, what their values are, how they live, and how strong their relationships are?

* * *

Ever since we launched The Junto Institute five years ago, culture has become a minor passion of mine. I became fascinated by many entrepreneurs' own fascination with it, the importance it plays in a new hire's decision to join a company, the impact it has on whether people stay or go and, most importantly, the effect it has on a company's performance.

We've had hundreds of conversations about culture, both structured and not. It's the topic of one our classes and a talking point in others, is often an agenda item for Mentor Team meetings and Tutoring Roundtables, and is brought up consistently in Forum sessions. Beyond the program, culture is a constant topic of conversation with the executive teams who participate in Junto, and with their team members. And finally, it's something that we discuss regularly within our own team at Junto.

Suffice it to say that I've learned a great deal about culture from all of this, namely what culture really is, the role that artifacts play, what the drivers of culture are, and that there's no such thing as a "good" culture.


The most important thing I've learned over these years is that culture is not as complicated as I once thought. Instead of being an abstract concept that is hard to define, or an arcane business idea that can't be connected to a company's financial results, I realized that everything I heard, observed, and said about culture could be boiled down to two things:

  1. Language: what people say and how they say it

  2. Behavior: how people act on a daily basis

That's it. In my view, culture is the sum of the language used by the people in a setting (home, office, etc.), and their behavior. And while it may be a simple way to articulate what culture is, most company leaders know that those two things are incredibly hard to design, manage, and change, often times much harder than expected.


The next thing I've learned about culture is that artifacts don't define it but reflect it. If culture is indeed language and behavior, it further helps confirm the idea that a company's culture is not defined by ping pong tables, glass-walled conference rooms, snacks in the kitchen, core values statements on the wall, or comfy couches. Instead, those are artifacts that may or may not reflect the culture and, sometimes, are put into place in order to influence the culture or express aspirations for it. Because it's a well-worn example, let's use a ping pong table to illustrate its role in the company culture discussion. 

If people actually use the table (behavior), we're able to identify what it represents about a company's culture: playfulness, competition, community, camaraderie, etc. But if no one uses it (also behavior), we may not be able to identify what it represents and it may be safe to conclude that playfulness, competition, etc. are not dominant aspects of the culture.

Similarly, if we watched every ping pong game played over the course of a week, we could listen to the conversations (language) between the coworkers, and identify what those interactions represent about the company's culture: again, playfulness, competition, community, camaraderie, etc. But we could also draw other conclusions about the culture based on their language while playing: Are conversations about their work or their lives? Are they comfortable swearing out loud? And how does the language change based on who walks by the ping pong table, or who doesn't?


The third important thing I've learned about culture is that language and behavior can be shaped, and that there are specific drivers that can be used to shape it. A few examples:

  • Leadership. Without question, I've concluded that culture starts at the top. Everyone at a company takes cues, or doesn't, from the language and behavior of the executives. Numerous case studies of this have emerged in recent years, from Apple and Amazon to Uber and Zappos. The point here isn't that leaders simply have to "walk the talk" but that, from day one, they are the walk. And, as we witness every day at Junto, the more those executives work on getting better as leaders, the more virtuous that "walk" becomes and, as a result, the better the language and behavior gets in the workplace.

  • Core Values. Most companies today have values statements, whether they're single words or full sentences. Having them is one thing but "living" them is entirely different. I've learned that when team members know the values, call them out when they're demonstrated or violated, and use them to help guide decision-making, a company's language and behavior is positively shaped by them. This is where the "walk" and the "talk" is essential for the leadership team: if they don't know or discuss the values, and/or don't live them on a daily basis, then the values statements themselves probably don't matter.

  • Space. This isn't just what a company's office looks like or where it's located but also how the space is designed and used (or not). Are there mostly enclosed offices or is it an open floor plan? How are conference rooms managed? Is the kitchen mainly a functional area or is it a gathering space? And how is the space influenced by windows, decor, furniture, color, etc.? Needless to say, all of this influences the language and behavior of the people who occupy the space. 


Finally, what I've learned is that it doesn't help to judge whether a company has a "good" culture or not. That's in the eye of the beholder: what one person deems as "good" may not be what another one does. Similarly, I've learned that there is no one way to define a company's culture; each person is entitled to their own description given what is important to them (to illustrate, compare how differently employees describe a company's culture on GlassDoor or LinkedIn).

Instead, I've concluded that what matters is whether a company's culture is appropriate given its mission, values, and goals. Does the language and behavior in the company help support the team's pursuit of its purpose, and is that purpose actually capable of being fulfilled given the culture? Is the culture aligned with their strategic and operational priorities? Does the culture effectively represent the core values and vice versa? And are the leaders happy with the culture given what they're trying to achieve personally and professionally?

* * *

Ultimately, it takes a considerable amount of time for a culture to develop and for it to be evaluated. I worry anytime I hear someone, like a job candidate or a visitor, comment on a workplace's culture after only one or two visits; everyone could have been on their best behavior or some people could have just been having a bad day. After all, it's like visiting someone's home for a weekend rather than an evening.