Strategy is at the core of our work, but strategy is not always about market positioning, competitive advantages, core competencies, or vertical or horizontal integration. Sometimes the most effective strategy is to foster the intentional and serendipitous growth of a compelling organizational culture.
An attractive company culture is a differentiating factor in any industry. Compelling cultures are evident in the dedication to experimentation at 3M, the socially conscious ethic of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and the pursuit of user simplicity at Apple. All these companies established a unique niche in their industries not only through high quality and a clear value proposition, but also, and perhaps even more so, by nurturing and communicating intangible values. For these companies, concrete indicators of performance and marketability are necessary but insufficient means to long-term prosperity.
The benefits of a distinct culture are multifold:
- New talent gravitates toward a company because the culture resonates with individuals in an emotionally gratifying manner.
- Customers purchase the company’s products because, all else equal, they connect with the personality of the company.
- Investors support the company because they recognize that compelling cultures foster exceptional word-of-mouth advertising, premium prices that transcend marginal-cost-based market pricing, bankable customer retention, and long-term loyalty by skilled employees.
To establish a distinctive and compelling culture, you can take several steps:
1. Decide which cultural values to emphasize.
Some values are ingrained in respectable companies: honesty, reliability, and a customer service orientation. Think about how to take those values to unique heights or pursue other values that are less common in your industry but no less compelling. Examples include speed regardless of the obstacle, a principle that has distinguished FedEx from rivals; and design simplification to accompany complex engineering, a principle that has elevated Apple above countless software and hardware competitors.
2. Communicate prominent actions, products, or systems that will build and reinforce the desired values.
Stage ceremonies that honor employees or customers whose actions and experiences reflect your differentiating principles.
3. Emphasize just a few things, even if you do many things well.
Stanford University enjoys renown across many areas of scholarship, but its visible emphasis on entrepreneurship and ingenuity has enabled the university to distinguish itself from academic rivals on the West Coast and beyond. If your company has many products or services, decide which ones align best with the company culture you want to propagate. You don’t need to emphasize all of your offerings. Simply focus on a handful so you can build awareness and traction around those.
4. Be disciplined in your pursuit of the desired culture. Suppose your company wants to emphasize a bright and creative thought process. Integrate bright colors, mind maps, off-the-wall pictures, and other captivating visuals into your offices, hallways, conference rooms, and signs. Eliminate any images that are dull or uninspired. In addition, reward employees for the craziest ideas. Instead of shooting down ideas that seem unrealistic or bizarre, shoot down ideas that are exceedingly rational or predictable. Constantly assess whether your ads, internal policies, hiring practices, and other company elements are reinforcing your desired culture. Eliminate items and activities that have a contradictory or neutral effect.
These are examples of ways to cultivate a desired culture that will give lasting value to your company. As an additional exercise, choose a few adjectives at random, notice which organizations come to mind when you think of those adjectives, and then study each of those organizations. You’ll see patterns and behaviors that enabled those companies to stand out in your mind. Think about what words, symbols, practices, and products those companies are using to build and convey a distinctive culture. Use those insights to cultivate your own unique culture.