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Culture is best defined as “values plus behavior” and is often described as “how employees act when no one is looking.”

Culture is such an important part of your business. It’s really the foundation of the organization.

I’ve previously defined culture as the set of values and norms that guides how the business operates; culture happens when we operationalize the values.

Herb Kelleher’s definition of culture is still my favorite: Culture is what people do when no one is looking.

But while some say culture cannot be designed or is not deliberate, I disagree; it certainly doesn’t just happen by chance. If you’ve ever read about Amazon’s culture or Zappos’ culture, to name just two, they both are what they are because they were designed that way. They were quite intentional, not happenstance.

Their cultures are rooted in strong core values, as should yours.

Culture should really stand on the following seven pillars:

  1. Mission: describes the business you are in, i.e., what you’re doing and who you’re serving.
  2. Vision: defines where the company wants to go in the future.
  3. Values: the fundamental beliefs of the organization that guide your employees, identifying right and wrong, good and bad, and how to interact with each other and with customers. If there were no other pillars – and all you had was values – you’d still have a pretty solid foundation for your culture.
  4. Guiding Principles: are more specific than values in how they guide the organization through everything it does; they are more prescriptive in nature. Principles are objective “truths” or “laws,” while values are subjective and provide a sense of direction.
  5. Purpose: the company’s reason for being, the why. It’s typically stated in such a way that helps employees understand who the business is trying to impact and in what way.
  6. Legend: if we tell the story about how the company started or where it came from, it creates a connection for employees, perhaps similar to purpose; it lets them feel how special and unique the company was/is and encourages them to carry that legacy forward, every day.
  7. Behavior: driven by all of the above, but especially by values/principle.

When culture truly stands on these pillars, it’s really most strongly reflected in the seventh one, behavior. You can have the other six in place, but if what employees and executives actually do doesn’t align with any of them, then it’s a big culture fail.

Behavior is reinforced in the following:

  • People: it starts with hiring the right people, those whose values and purpose align with the organization’s values and purpose. Culture fit is no joke. Hire for attitude; train for skill.
  • Executive Alignment: executives are not exempt from culture fit, and they certainly must all be on the same page when it comes to each of the seven pillars, the goals of the business, and how the business should be run. Key for executives is to lead by example, to model the behavior that they wish to see from their employees; if they don’t live the values, why should employees?!
  • Servant Leadership: leaders within the organization must always put people first and recognize that their employees’ needs come before their own. This should be a basic tenet of any culture.
  • Rules and Policies: if policies are out of line with the core values of the business, your employees will be confused; as a matter of fact, if your culture is strong, there’s no need for excessive rules and policies.
  • Metrics and Measures: measure what matters; if your performance metrics are not aligned with your core values, don’t expect employees to live them. Performance reviews should include core values.
  • Rewards and Recognition: reward the behavior you want to see, the behavior that supports your culture, your values.
  • Events and Programs: these should also reflect your core values; if happy and healthy employees are important to your culture (and they should be!), take a look at wellness programs and similar programs that help employees achieve that state.
  • Communication: the way executives communicate with their employees – and the way employees talk to each other – is a huge part of your culture, as well. Communications, including those to/with customers, should reflect the values, always. And, by the way, values should/must be regularly be communicated.

The bottom line is that it’s important to have all seven pillars in place, but culture really is best defined as “values plus behavior.”

I’ll leave you with this quote, which reminds me of the “What the Hell is Water” story.

Determine what behaviors and beliefs you value as a company, and have everyone live true to them. These behaviors and beliefs should be so essential to your core, that you don’t even think of it as culture. -Brittany Forsyth, VP of Human Relations, Shopify