What is company culture? It surprised me that I couldn’t just pull a decent answer out of my back pocket for this. For the past few years, I’ve thought of myself as an advocate of company culture, yet it wasn’t until I set out to write a blog post about SwellPath’s culture that I realized how difficult it would be to pin down what that actually meant.
Sure, I could turn to Google and figure out what “organizational culture” meant in less than .00062 seconds, but instead I waited until I was a mile up in the air to try to figure it out on my own. Something incredibly counter-instinctual for a search geek like me.
What is company culture? To me, culture is the way a startup, a company, an organization behaves. I’m not sure I like that definition…let me clarify.
An organization has a vision; what they aim to accomplish. They also have a strategy; the path they follow to reach or realize that vision. Their culture, then, is the way they walk that path.
- Does the team march together, eyes fixed ahead, in strict time or do they meander at a leisurely pace?
- Do they move forward in an all-out sprint or do they work together to find creative ways to navigate the path more efficiently?
- Do they encourage their “best” to break away from the pack and let stragglers fall off into the dust or do they make an effort to support each other and allow each person to become stronger and more capable along the way?
The way that the path is walked; this is what company culture is to me.
Culture is the way organizations navigate the path toward their vision.
In my mind, an exceptional company culture is one that is sustainable. It acknowledges the whole, and by this, focuses on the well being of each team member. Well being encompasses a lot: intellectual progression, professional growth, mental and physical health, workplace satisfaction, and more. An organization that focuses on the well being of the individual has a much higher chance of being sustainable over time. Reduced burnout, employee turnover, and disengagement are just a few benefits. When team members are supported by their organization’s culture, they become more excited, passionate, creative, and collaborative. In what world does this not translate into better work, more innovative products, better ROI, or clients that are better served?
The discussion of what makes a great company culture is far too large and important for me to properly cover here. Indeed, the discussion could span books or merit entire blogs dedicated to company culture. What I have here is simply a collection of my high-level thoughts.
And who am I to talk about company culture with any measure of authority? I am someone who lives or dies by my organization’s culture. I’ve experienced the cultures of global multi-billion dollar companies and I’ve experienced the evolution of cultures in small startups. I’ve seen positive cultures lift team members up to greatness and I’ve seen toxic cultures literally drive employees to emotional breakdowns.
I do not work in a vacuum. For better or for worse, I am acutely impacted by the culture that surrounds me. I’ve witnessed firsthand the power that company culture has over people and how it affects business results. As a result, I’ve obsessively followed the culture stories of hundreds of startups over the past few years and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to shape a company culture at SwellPath. So who am I to talk about company culture? No one, really. Simply someone that feels its effects on a daily basis. Does that then make me an ideal authority on the subject? We shall see.
I wrote this as a way to explore my own thoughts and help define what “company culture” actually meant to me. As I wrap up this post, thousands of feet up in the air somewhere over Northern California, I’m deciding to give myself a pass on having to produce a carefully crafted conclusion. It was the process of getting to the end that got me to where I needed to go.