Your Company's Culture Is Its Soul

My late friend, Mike, was a photographer by trade but also a world traveler, voracious reader, amateur musician, moderate liberal, and pop-culture philosopher. He was creative. For him, one plus one equaled two...maybe.

On paper, I’m the opposite of Mike. I’m a classically trained MBA from a respected institution. I have learned, practiced and taught the tenets of starting, building and managing organizations based on defined, measurable outcomes. One plus one equals two...definitely.

It would be understandable to think that the two of us could never find anything in common. But Mike was a skilled, insightful, welcoming conversationalist so he and I would often debate the issues of the day. During one of those exchanges, despite our viewing the economic and political worlds from a different lens, we agreed that a business - or any organization - could have a soul. A soul that directs the attitudes and actions of any size group, a soul that leads to organizational purpose, and a soul that produces (gasp!) a profit.

At The Junto Institute, we define the “soul” of the business as its “culture”. We work with the founders, CEOs and leadership teams of entrepreneurial businesses to delineate and curate the chosen culture of their business.

Southwest Airlines, when it was still a startup, mastered the science of keeping airplanes and passengers in the air at a favorable cost and price. However, its success can be better attributed to the mastery of a culture of collaboration, personal responsibility, respect and fun. LinkedIn exemplifies its soul by clearly publishing the culture of its business based on the following values:

  1. Relationships Matter

  2. Be Open, Honest and Constructive

  3. Demand Excellence

  4. Take Intelligent Risks; and

  5. Act Like an Owner

The famed management guru, Peter Drucker, often argued that a company’s culture would trump any attempt to create a strategy that was incompatible with the culture. For example, if a company has a corporate soul - or culture - of personal responsibility, it wouldn’t be able to institute a strategy that would allow an underperforming team member to hide or deflect blame to others.

Similarly, LinkedIn can only make business decisions that would positively affect its relationship with valued partners. Southwest Airlines can only make collaborative decisions; any made from the top-down or from within a bubble would distort its soul and lead to failure. 

The questions for you are: What is your company's soul? How do you articulate it? And does it reject incompatible strategies, or does it allow them to infect the company?