If you listen to certain VCs and CEOs active on social media – you might come to a conclusion that the existential threat to their companies is “culture” ( or lack there of). It’s also largely silly.
Most touristy places I have visited have some kind of “cultural immersion” program – where you are exposed to their food , music , dress etc in a short time . At the end of which – you get a glimpse of some things that may entertain you , but you still don’t know much about that culture . Eating spaghetti doesn’t make me Italian , even if expertly cooked by Mario Battali. Recently at a sales training event , the trainer confidently exclaimed “I know how you Europeans feel – I lived there for 5 years”. There was a collective groan from my European colleagues in response which amused me to no end.
Culture is extremely complex – and if you are not an anthropology major , you probably have not spent sufficient time understanding what constitutes it . I spent some time reading about it – and it gave me a headache .
It takes a significant amount of time and effort to be part of a culture . Seeing it from outside and living it from the inside are two vastly different things . I have lived in USA for 15 years – but it would be outrageously wrong if I claimed to have a full grip of American culture . Similarly I am amused when I hear American friends say “I love India and Indian food – your chicken tikka masala and garlic nan is the yummiest meal I ever had . And I was stunned by the beauty of Taj Mahal” . ( Chicken tikka masala is mostly a dish invented by North Indian chefs who moved to the Western Hemisphere , and designed for western taste buds – we don’t eat it in India . And I have not seen a garlic nan in India at any house . Finally – Taj is amazing , but it also stands out because there are many unsightly things around it that you might find hard to deal with if you lived there ) .
The first time I heard a serious discussion of culture at work was only a few years ago . I was never too interested in a detailed look at it when I was in the earlier stages of my career . That particular discussion was along the lines of “we need to work on the culture – it looks rather different from the awesome culture we grew up in” .
They were referring to a time 15 – 20 years ago, where it was a young team of mostly males , all whites , all MBAs with engineering degrees . Their managers were quite similar to them – just older and wealthier for the most part. The team we were worried about was diverse , not all MBAs and not looking anywhere similar to the managers on any aspect . Why exactly were they worried ? I didn’t know then – and I still can’t put my finger on it today .
And then there was this CEO I know who said “let’s spend part of our next offsite defining our culture . I keep hearing that the company culture has changed quite a bit”. He was leading a young company that was doubling in size every year – which meant
1. It is hard to put a finger on a culture that has only existed for few years . Too young to have a specific culture to begin with.
2. Half the team is new at any given point . Culture – in a company or country – evolves by mixing new with old . It’s not static . I can barely recognize the my hometown in India these days . They drink capouccino and lattes today ( there was only coffee – regular “kappi” – when I lived there ).
3. Can you define and implement culture top down ? No – and you can’t do it by hanging slogan filled banners either . Was Roman culture created by the Ceasar and his senate by a royal decree ?
What about the big companies that have been around for decades like GE or IBM ? Well – they probably have had good times and bad times in those decades . Which means they also had employees and managers who worried about culture changes periodically as market transitions happened .
Does all this mean that culture is unimportant ? No certainly not – it is part of our identity as corporate citizens, and hence is important . All I am saying is – just don’t get too wound up about it .
Embrace the idea that despite your strong desire to direct it in a centralized and top down way, it will grow in largely unpredictable ways. A culture has subcultures – even a small state like Kerala (where I was born and raised ) have three or four distinct sub cultures. So why do we expect that a one size fits all culture will ever exist that covers the existing fairly stable engineering team and the fairly new and fast changing sales team ?
Culture is built on people . Treat people well and give them the freedom to do their jobs , and be transparent to the extent you can . And change your approach as you learn what is working and what is not . Maybe if you do those little things – you will have a culture that you are comfortable with. It’s a “maybe” – don’t waste your energy trying to design something that was never meant to be designed .