On Culture

As a fan of a certain NFL franchise based in Philadelphia, the entire offseason and start of the regular season were dominated by talk of Coach Chip Kelly’s culture even more so than his system.  Kelly has been under the microscope after letting go of a number of Pro Bowl performers since taking over complete control of the Eagles.  While there may be more nuance to the debate over those players’ talent and net contributions to the team than a surface view would reveal, there is no questioning that players like LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, and Evan Mathis were key cogs in the Eagles’ early success(es) under Kelly.  So, the question being asked in barbershops, on talk radio, and at the local steak shops was why get rid of them—and by extension, not others who appeared to be less valuable and integral to the team’s back-to-back 10-win seasons.  The answer is that Kelly is looking to build a team that buys fully into his methods and the related culture he is trying to establish for the organization.

While the remainder of the season—and likely next year’s—will determine whether these decisions were good ones by Kelly, the prevalence and importance of culture is even more pronounced in business.  I have seen some outstanding corporate (in the most inclusive sense of that word, from multibillion dollar conglomerates to the smallest startups) cultures and some that left a bit to be desired on that front.  Those good and bad experiences alongside the weekly ups and downs of fandom caused me to reflect this week on the idea of culture, and I wanted to share some observations and maybe even a couple of helpful pointers to ensure your firm’s culture is supporting and driving your success rather than working against you:

  1. What people have done matters more than what they say (most of the time).  It would be easy to summarize this as “talk is cheap,” but the lesson here is more nuanced than that.  Before bringing someone into your organization, be sure to understand where they are coming from in terms of their personal/philosophical approach but also how their experience has shaped that world view.  To illustrate with an extreme example, if you are choosing between two qualified candidates who are saying similar things about how they would grow your business, a key differentiator between the two could be how closely their prior companies or industries mimic your own.  For example, if you were running an elite private academy, you should probably weight the words (and resume) of a candidate from one of your peer institutions differently than those of a candidate whose experience was exclusively in large public school environments.  Not to say that the latter candidate might not be the better choice, but you should definitely delve more deeply into how well her perspective and vision will align with your culture lest you lose the cachet of your brand and become indistinguishable from the masses.

  2. Culture is an accelerant, not the basic fuel.  Companies in a state of decline (or failure to launch) are frequently susceptible to the idea that a change in culture—most often in the form of an influx of new leadership—will right the ship.  All the rah-rah and Kumbaya in the world is not going to overcome flawed products or strategies.  In addition, if that culture is force fed as is often the case in those circumstances, you are likely to lose some of your best people who see through the cheerleading, not to mention the potential for needing yet another reset once that new leadership moves elsewhere.  In most cases, if you get your core business model right, the culture is going to take care of itself.

  3. Try to anticipate unintended consequences.  Hindsight is always 20/20, but we can know that bringing new people into an organization always has the potential to impact culture.  As a general rule, the smaller the company, the greater that impact will be.  Similarly, the higher up in an organization the new hire enters, the greater the impact.  That impact could be a positive one, of course, but there is almost certain to be an impact.  If you are unsure if you are ready to gamble with such a shift in your company, this may be another good reason to consider a consultant to take on the responsibilities a new hire otherwise would, at least in the short term as a proving ground.

Passion is personal and mission is corporate; culture is what happens when they are put into action.   Understanding your culture, and how it affects your organization is crucial to building and maintaining an innovative and motivated organization.