Want a Great Culture? Communicate it


“Culture” is a buzzword in corporate circles; many organizations and senior management teams talk about creating or building a culture. Globally, having a strong culture is desirable. A 2015 Deloitte survey of 3,300 executives in more than 100 countries cited “culture and engagement” as the most important issue they face. Any way you slice it, this intangible thing called “culture” is an important component in high-performing organizations and those companies that employees want to work for. The key thing to know is that culture is fundamentally about communication.

What is culture? A scholarly explanation of organizational culture is available from some of the leading thinkers in the field of social science, particularly Michael Pacanowsky and Nick O’Donnell-Trujillo. Their work, first published in the early 1980s, was influenced by the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who theorized that symbols guide actions. For me, culture boils down to words and actions – both how we talk about what’s important and what we do about those things. It’s doing the right things for the right reasons, and living your values. Regardless of how culture takes root in a given organization, it has a big impact – internally and externally.

Organizations with strong cultures stand out. They tend to deliver distinctive experiences to their customers and employees. They are the kinds of places that people want to join. As companies everywhere struggle to attract and retain talent, having a strong culture is an imperative.

Fortune magazine recently published its annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. This is always an interesting list, and I like to see which companies make the cut and what they’re doing. These companies include Google, Twitter, Autodesk, Cisco and Nordstrom; in one way or another, each is a leader in its field. As Fortune Senior Editor at Large Geoff Colvin wrote on LinkedIn about the 100 Best Companies, these firms aren’t just cool places to work; they also are outperforming their competitors. Organizations that are attracting talent and achieving more financially truly exhibit strong cultures.

I said earlier that culture is fundamentally about communication. How does communication play a part in an organization’s culture? Your people have to know what to expect, and they can’t read the minds of the organization’s leaders. You gotta spell it out! And by “spell it out,” I mean leaders have to be visible in talking about the core values and beliefs and modeling those.

In earlier posts, I’ve written about the importance of authenticity in communicating. Without question, messages that are delivered in an authentic way have the biggest impact in reaching and engaging audiences. Person-to-person communications are powerful, but it’s very difficult to do that in a large, distributed organization. The next best alternative is to broadcast messages to vast audiences. To me, the most authentic and cost-effective form of communicating with large audiences is live video. Seeing and hearing a live broadcast is second only to being in the room. Enterprises that want to build and sustain strong cultures today must look at how they can deliver authentic messages to their stakeholders. If they aren’t already using video to help communicate their values, those organizations are missing a huge opportunity.

Culture is communicable – people “catch” it when they observe their leaders and co-workers. If you want to build, change or sustain a distinctive culture in your firm, then you’ve got to model it and communicate it, and get your community to live it too.