One of the biggest buzzwords in the professional world today is “corporate culture.” Job candidates are asked how they think they’ll fit into the corporate culture, and employers are urged to maintain a strong, positive brand identity within their corporate culture. What exactly is corporate culture, though? Does it really exist as prevalently as shop talk would have us believe, or is it just a phrase tossed around without any real thought as to what it means? If it does exist, is it something that can be changed through one or two hiring decisions?
Let’s take a quick look at what a corporate culture should entail. Culture is typically used to describe the set of customs, traditions, and values of a society or community, such as an ethnic group or nation. To be a true “corporate culture,” the concept must be constructed from the beliefs, behaviors, and interactions between employees and managers, as well as how outside business transactions are handled. A true corporate culture does not develop quickly; rather, it develops organically over time from the combined traits of the leaders of the company and the people the company hires.
“The vast majority of companies like to talk about corporate culture, most often in the concept of changing it,” says executive coach Richard Merrick of Grow House Initiative Ltd. Merrick has more than 20 years of experience in helping businesses develop their strategic directions and leadership capabilities and has seen firsthand what corporate cultures really look like.
The whole notion of a corporate culture is, by definition, about as easy to change as any other form of culture. You don’t change a national culture overnight, because the culture itself has been developed over a long period. Likewise, a corporate culture cannot be changed overnight, because it has developed around a culmination of the people comprising that company.
“We end up using ‘company culture’ as a convenient shorthand without really thinking through what it is,” Merrick states. He’s absolutely right, because if you stop and think about how difficult a culture is to change swiftly, it will become clear that corporate culture is just as slow to change. Changing a culture takes time, so when corporations speak about changing their “culture,” they are really planning to change something dramatically different.
On the other hand, corporate cultures do tend to show a half-life, meaning the corporate culture erodes over time. Very few Fortune 500 corporations retain a corporate culture, Merrick claims, because of their very nature of being money-centric. “Where the corporate mission is more detached, in part because it’s geared around shareholder interests or some other money-centric focus, that’s much more difficult to build a culture around.”
Merrick points to Apple as a corporation that might have a corporate culture. If so, that culture was built around Steve Jobs, as well as the leaders he chose and the employees that became a part of Apple. According to Merrick, what is looked at as a corporate culture is often unsustainable, rising and falling with the presence or absence of an individual in the business. A truly strong corporate culture, though, survives the departure of that leader. “The test of it,” Merrick explains, “is what happens to it with changes in leadership. Does a new leader come in and become a part of it, or do they create their own culture? The real test will come when somebody comes in and replaces Tim Cook [current CEO of Apple]. What happens when he leaves? Benchmark that against what Cook does with the culture and what the succeeding leadership does with the culture, and that will determine how engrained the culture really is.”
Cultural change is only seen in retrospective, not in the moment of change. This is because the “moment” of change is really a vast collection of moments: moments when leadership changes, moments when HR professionals bring in new talent, and moments when corporate values shift or evolve. It is important for human resources professionals to keep corporate culture in mind when recruiting individuals, but it is equally important not to think that hiring one individual will change the company’s culture. Rather, the culmination of beliefs and attitudes of the employees will generate cultural change.