Defining Your Company's Culture

How to Define An Organization's Culture

An Organization Development consultant wrote to ODNet that he has been tasked by his executive with facilitating a process designed to define "what we want our company's culture to be."

What a great aspiration. What an exciting challenge for an OD practitioner.

The consultant went on to ask: "...we're simply trying to select a model for defining a culture, and potential questions to pose to the executive team. By model I mean a list of categories of characteristics that define a culture."

This is what I recommended to him:

Don't let your executive off the hook. If he (or she) is the top person in the organization, the culture will be affected by him, one way or another. Keep him engaged with you in this project.

I worked for a telecom company back in the early to mid 1990's that had pursued this very same goal.

The CEO had founded the company in the 1980's following the break-up of Ma Bell. In the early years (roughly 1984 to 1993) of building the company, he and the other founders, senior leaders, and early employees put their personal stamp on it.

In particular, the CEO was smart: he could smell and seize opportunity, based on his years of experience in the telecom industry. He was hard-working, customer-focused, innovative, competitive, fast-moving, team-oriented, and entreprenuerial.

As the 1990's unfolded, the company grew significantly, expanding both its product offerings and its footprint, going nation-wide through new branch offices as well as acquisitions of other local telcos.

With this growth, he recognized that the company's success had been based on his people and their performance. They had a "secret weapon" in their way of operating, a culture, that he wanted to capture and teach to new employees. With the help of a consultant, he did just that.

The culture statement reflected the history of the company, the values of the founders, and the mark of the CEO, highlighting such elements as
- learning
- initiative
- teamwork
- being close to the customer
- providing solutions
- speed
- quality
- continuous improvement

The culture statement was integrated with the Mission and Vision and strategic plan, becoming legendary within the company. When I joined in 1993, I attended a six-part culture training course (which I later took over and managed).

The consultant had asked in his ODNet posing if any of us have a model or set of questions that could be utilized in working with his senior leadership team.

I wrote back that I would use Appreciative Inquiry and ask one question:

Describe those aspects of our "way of operating" that have contributed to our success as an organization.

With this opening, the consultant could facilitate a conversation designed to bring out and capture the strengths in their way of operating, their culture.

Posted by Terrence Seamon, 03/31/2006

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