Your business is as good as your culture | Contributor

By Mike Cook 
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

There is an advertisement all over television these days. There are several versions, but all carry the same message.

One character in the scene asks the question: “Did you know you 15 minutes could save you 15 percent on car insurance?” A second character rolls their eyes and responds: “Everyone knows that!”, whereupon the first character counters with an obscure factoid in the form of a question in hopes of getting some recognition for their intelligence.

Like a lot of things in life, knowing something is really only as valuable as what you do with the information—like did you really save 15 percent on car insurance, or did you just know that you could? Many business owners relate to the culture of their businesses like this, as well.

Ask most any business owner if they know that managing the culture of their business can pay big dividends, and you will often get the knee-jerk response: “Everyone knows that.” In my experience, however, not many business owners operate from their knowledge of the power of culture to make or break a business, nor do they truly have an appreciation of this fundamental truth.

I was reminded that it might be time to write again about the power of culture to make or break a business when today I saw that Booz & Co. issued a new report reinforcing “what everybody knows.

To paraphrase the Booz findings, many companies do not act on what they know to be true, and culture can make or break your business.

You may be saying to yourself that, as a business owner in Whatcom County or Skagit County, reports like this have little to do with your organization.

After all, Booz is an international consulting companies and the participants in their surveys have thousands of employees—real cultures, so to speak. You have only a few employees and you know them all by name and you buy pizza for everyone frequently, maybe even a beer or two every now and then. That should do it, right?

If you think that the occasional free pizza or even a turkey at Thanksgiving makes up for close attention paid to the day-to-day culture of your business, then you might find, as the Booz survey respondents did, results like these if you survey your employees:

– 60 percent said culture is more important than the company’s strategy or operating model.

– 96 percent said some form of culture change is needed within their organization.

– 51 percent believe their organization is in need of a major culture overhaul.

– 45 percent do not think their culture is being effectively managed.

– 48 percent do not think they have the capabilities required to deliver lasting change.

– At 57 percent, skepticism due to past failed efforts was the number-one reason for resistance to change.

Here’s what I think: As a small business owner, you read columns like this one and say to yourself: “Yes everyone knows that culture is more important than just about any other single factor in predicting business success, but I am not a sociologist or psychologist and I cannot afford to hire Booz to come in and help me!” And with that, you throw up your hands or shrug your shoulders, as if to say: “Hey, what do you expect from me?”

Really, are you satisfied with that?

I don’t think so, and I also think you are right about both not being able to afford to hire Booz, or about not being a psychologist for your business. However, maybe this might be a place to start.

Could you address the following?:

– Make sure that bad behavior is visibly, but respectfully, confronted.

 – Make sure that compensation, incentives and promotions are based on results and behavior, not just results.

– Manage your emotions, and do not give yourself permission to explode in public.

– Have those pizza parties on a regular schedule, and have them be about communication as well as camaraderie. This means you have to be there.

– Do not let employees use email as a “cover your butt” tactic. Make sure it is a proactive tool.

– Make it clear to managers on how to treat employees respectfully and be rigorous with performance expectations. Just what is good enough?

– Be specific about values and behaviors, and reinforce them publicly.

Taking actions along these lines will not manage your culture entirely, but it will start to remove fear from the environment and make culture-management possible.

Next time out, I’ll talk about action steps for culture change.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at

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