By Debbie Ahl

Company culture and its ability to elevate organizational performance is an oft-reported topic in business journals, with a cadre of strong supporters and equally strong detractors. Much of this debate is caused by lack of understanding as to what culture really is.

Company culture is often used to refer to the ambience of a company—i.e., the quiet reserve of a conservatively business-professional organization or the hip, young and edgy environment of a tech company offering nap rooms, pingpong and a platform of alternative wellness benefits.

Culture defined in these ways provides a limited sense of the company. It does not represent the depth of culture that can elevate organizational performance, energize success and realize great visions. A better definition of organizational culture has its roots in anthropology: The accumulation of knowledge, experience, language, attitudes, meanings, roles and behaviors of a group of people developed over generations.  

Culture in the business world does not require generations of time to develop, but it does require intentional, purposeful and thoughtful leadership. It requires communication of a shared vision capable of inspiring passion and values consistently modeled by leaders throughout the organization. It requires key business processes to be based upon and integrated with the values, vision and mission of the organization. This integration is supported by storytelling and thoughtful communication illustrating how each stakeholder plays a role in achieving the vision, creating purpose and engagement throughout the organization. Culture is the very foundation for how decisions are made—and actions are determined—at every level of the organization.

Consider the following six reasons for why companies—indeed, any organization—should invest in the intentional development of culture:

  • Culture is the best way to manage brand, particularly in service industries. A company’s brand is the collection of perceptions in the minds of its customers and communities as to how its people deliver upon its promise. That means that every touch point of the organization creates a perspective that impacts the impression of its brand. This comprehensive impression can’t be managed by the marketing team, business development executives, or any singular person or department. It can only be managed by creating a culture in which every team member embraces the vision and purpose of the organization and collectively lives and breathes the same behavior, language and attitude while understanding the roles of each team member and how decisions are made.
  • Culture is the timing belt of the organization. – It makes sure that everyone is pulling in the same direction. Great teamwork—such as the synchronization shown by Olympic rowing teams—creates forward momentum and winning efforts. Great teamwork is not driven by individual skills and expertise but rather by a bonding of intellect and emotions in pursuit of a singular vision. A strong culture allows everyone to pull in the same direction, with the same timing, the same knowledge of the challenges and opportunities, and the same understanding of the company’s vision and how it will be achieved.
  • Culture amps up employee engagement. Gallup estimated in 2015 that 70% of workers in the United States are not engaged in their workplace and that there was little change as of January of this year. Perhaps this is why companies struggle with sustainable quality improvement, strong regulatory compliance or exceptional customer service. A culture that inspires employee engagement; rallies everyone behind a common vision; and results in energized, passionate work elevates organizational performance.
  • Culture allows organizations to achieve great success beyond financial resources or star talent. Companies that have less capital to invest or pay star talent can gain a tremendous competitive advantage by intentionally developing a culture in which people feel valued; enjoy a sense of productivity and recognition; and, most of all, feel a tremendous sense of purpose and feeling that they are making a difference. We all know that compensation counts, but employees that feel purposeful, understand how their role makes a difference, and are fully engaged are less likely to leave a company for a raise of 20% or less.
  • Great culture makes an impact beyond the walls of the company itself, creating more positive impact on the community. The impact of a great culture extends well beyond metrics that can be measured in terms of profits, productivity, revenue growth and customer service. All of these results create positive economic impact. But great culture also creates satisfied employees who go home energized at the end of the day. his energy allows them to give more of themselves to their families and communities.
  • Culture is necessary for transformational change. Change management can be challenging for organizations; and requires more than structured project teams and clear project charters. To achieve transformational change, a culture of engagement must exist with all team members understanding the vision, the purpose and the “why’s” as well as the “how’s” of the change. A great culture is based on strong business practices and frameworks, great governance and leadership, and consistent clarity of communication. In a great culture, team members know what to expect from their leadership and from each other. This platform of trust allows them to more positively address the changes and challenges that lie ahead.

Debbie Ahl is a seasoned CEO and board member who will always be a student of culture and change management. She spent 10 years in hospital administration followed by 20 years as a health payer. She serves as the senior advisor, payer relations for ADVault Inc., provider of a digital ecosystem for advance care planning.