Have you ever experienced a company with a culture so powerful that you notice it immediately? There is a positive tone in the conversation, a joyful way in which people interact, a different feeling that you get walking through the door.    

Those companies are rare.   

It is more likely you’ve experienced a company with a culture that is toxic. One where the tone of the conversation is so negative that it instantly brings you down, were the interactions between employees seem hostile, and where you would like to run out the door shortly after entering.   

Luckily, those companies are also rare.  

It is most likely that you have experienced a company where you didn’t even notice the culture. Where nothing stands out – either positive or negative. It is simply business as usual. The employees go about their work; some do it well, others not so well. People seem content, but no one is overly excited and no one is overly pissed off.   

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is different about these companies…but you can sense it almost immediately.   

You can also see it in the results that these organizations have.    

From “Corporate Culture and Performance” – James Heskett and John Kotter

A great culture doesn’t look the same across all companies, and, it can be challenging to pin down or curate.   

When Paul O’Neill was brought in as CEO to boost the performance of Alcoa, he didn’t focus on profits or increased employee productivity as most would. He instead built a culture that was focused on safety.  

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” O’Neill told me. “But you can’t order people to change.” “That’s not how the brain works. So, I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”  From The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg  

Alcoa is an industrial aluminum giant and has many teams running large equipment with a high chance of injury if safety protocols are not adhered to. The new culture of safety encouraged adherence through a community approach that encouraged everyone to take responsibility – even if it meant with a superior or manager. This concept permeated upward into the corporate side of the organization and resulted in transparency and increased adherence at all levels. As a result, Alcoa’s profits and performance went through the roof.   

Zappos has grown at an amazing rate. Leaders from companies around the world come to its corporate headquarters to take a “culture tour” to learn how they managed to grow and prosper. Tony Hseih, the CEO of Zappos also bears another title, “Advocate of Company Culture” 

“Our number one priority is company culture. Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.” 

Zappos is hyper about focusing on customer service and creating a culture that holds that as the pinnacle of success. Every employee who works there embodies that focus and it has led to great success and ultimately profits. It is also a very fun and rewarding place to work.    

Uber is a company that felt the impact of a negative culture – both in the toxic workplace environment that it caused, but also in the negative press and loss of customers that resulted from it. When Uber’s toxic culture became public, it also resulted in the company losing significant market share to its main rival, Lyft.  To quote Susan Fowler, the engineer that exposed many of the egregious cultural norms, she said,  
“It seemed like every manager was fighting their peers and attempting to undermine their direct supervisor so that they could have their direct supervisor’s job. No attempts were made by these managers to hide what they were doing: They boasted about it in meetings, told their direct reports about it, and the like.”   

This culture, while driving a lot of early initial success, was also destroying the company. The cutthroat culture along with the sexism and “frat boy” mentality that was rewarded by managers and leaders there eventually led to the ousting of the company’s founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick.    

The company’s new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi worked extremely hard at reshaping this culture. When he took over the helm of the company, he spent months interviewing and surveying people, getting their input on what the culture should be. He solicited input from his employees and had over 1,200 ideas submitted, these ideas were then voted on more than 22,000 times. And while the organization has changed, Dara stated, “We certainly don’t expect these norms to change overnight, or every year, but we always want to take stock of who we are, who we want to be, and move accordingly.” It is a long road to move past the negative history that was created by the previous culture.   

Creating the Culture That is Right For You 

As you can see, the different cultures presented above highlight some stellar organizations and some poisonous ones, but they also highlight that no two cultures are the same. Alcoa upped its game by focusing on safety, while Zappos had a culture that prioritized customer service above all else, and Uber had an internally competitive culture and is shifting to one that is focused on doing the right thing.   

Your culture signals the behaviors and attitudes that your employees should have. It provides subtle social rewards for those who maintain it and punishes those who go against it.  Organizations need to be purposeful in the design and maintenance of that culture. If you take the Uber example to heart, in the early years of the company, the competitive nature of the culture (not the sexist frat boy part) might have been beneficial in pushing it to the hypergrowth that it had. However, as the company grew and expanded, that culture either didn’t fit or it morphed into something that was toxic.   

You need to be vigilant with your culture. It needs to be crafted based on your history, your products or services, the people that you are employing and serving. It is a bespoke aspect of your company, that needs care and guidance.   

Great companies have great cultures. Great teams have great cultures. If you want to stand out and succeed, you need to have a great culture.