Culture Just Happens

Quick Summary: Culture develops on its own over time, but takes its direction and nurturing from the CEO.


Like seeds thrown on the ground, culture naturally develops. Provided with a healthy environment, it can grow and mature as desired.  The CEO, through his actions, not words, determines the type of seeds that will be planted and must carefully nurture the seeds as they grow and simultaneously root out anything that hinders that growth.  Like the roots of the giant Sequoia Redwood trees that interlock to provide unified strength, a company’s culture can become the critical element in determining its success.

“Stuff Happens” is a more socially acceptable version of the vulgar statement that is often quoted to address the fact that unexpected, bad events seem to happen for no apparent reason.  Applying this statement to corporate culture as, “Culture Just Happens,” may be a stretch, but attempts to capture the thought that corporate culture simply appears, takes shape, and becomes widespread almost on its own.  That is not to say that it is an accident or cannot be steered.  It does, however, mean that it cannot be dictated, read out of a book, or be embraced by proclamation on inspiring wall posters.

Expressed more elegantly on the Investopedia web site:

“Corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company's employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires.”

Without a doubt, the first and largest initiating factor in setting the wheels in motion for the evolution of a company’s culture are the actions of the CEO.  The words that a CEO writes or says have little to do with the planting culture seeds.  Instead, observable actions are all that matters.  Like it or not, CEOs are always on stage.  Even when they do not think their actions are visible, they are.  Three of the previous articles in this section, “The Buck Starts Here,” “You Wear Two Hats,” and, “Your Balancing Acts,” discuss various aspects of how the CEO’s behaviors impact the organization.  The common thread through all of these articles is that the CEO creates and must live in the desired environment that will then nurture the ensuing culture.  The chemistry must be right.  That chemistry is quite simple:  The CEO must lead by example and expect others to follow suit.  The CEO must take decisive corrective action when the first hint of variation appears that threatens the desired outcome.  Just as a farmer fertilizes his crops, removes weeds, and provides other forms of continuous care, a CEO must take on and accomplish similar tasks.

This approach does not inhibit free spirit or individualism.  To the contrary, both of those characteristics should be encouraged as long as they are in total alignment with two (just two) fundamental attributes:  integrity and accountability.  With those two unwavering concepts, a company’s culture can evolve in many different directions.  There is no one correct approach.

The first two fundamental Business Principles defined in this series have a direct bearing on a company’s culture, and the company’s evolving culture has a direct bearing on those two principles.  There is, therefore, a circular relationship that can set the stage to take the company in an upward spiral, raising the company to new heights or in a downward spiral that can have serious consequences.

The First Principle is “Stay in Business” as discussed in Chapter 2.  However, it does not support staying in business at any cost.  That principle is most closely tied to the Second Principle: “Treat All People With Dignity and Respect.”  The “all” means exactly that.  There is no differentiation or exception made or tolerated for employees, partners, customers, or financial investors as described in the Third Principle.  Applying integrity and accountability consistently to all internal and external activities and encounters is critical, and must be embraced as the only acceptable approach.  There can be no bystanders.

Establishing integrity and accountability as the ground rules on the first day of business and maintaining it each day forever, will take the seemingly random nature of the notion, “It just happens,” and convert it to a predictable and stable outcome.  As the CEO lays the first cornerstone, each person can then build on it until the culture becomes the entire foundation for a company’s continued success.


Article Number : 4.050401   

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