Creating Your Culture



By Randy Pennington

Wouldn’t it be great if the process of building and sustaining a strong, vibrant culture was like an easy-to-follow recipe or even just popping the ingredients out of a can –like baking cookies? The reality, however, is that it bears a striking similarity to making a great sauce. It involves trial and error, and is often messy.

Admittedly, I don’t make a great sauce. My cooking more often involves a microwave. But my wife makes incredible sauces, and I have learned to appreciate her artistry. She spends hours simmering, reducing, and adding just the right mix of ingredients to create a unique masterpiece. It is a blend of art and science that comes together because of her dedication and attention.

There are guidelines. You can’t, for example, ignore the chemistry of how ingredients interact. But there is also a tremendous opportunity for creativity in crafting the perfect sauce. Some dishes need something with a little more kick – while others may need to appeal to a diverse group of palates and preferences.

It is the same with your organization’s culture. A rigid three, five, or seven-step process will work if you are baking a cookie-cutter culture that is just like your competitor’s — but, rigid processes and steps can be a barrier to creating the secret sauce that makes your organization unique.

Here are four ideas you can use right now to create your culture. Take them for what they are – tips you can adapt, rather than a recipe to follow.

Match your culture to your strategy and environment. Flexible, fun, and relaxed works if you are an Internet company or a hipster design company. It doesn’t make sense if you operate a nuclear power plant or hospital. Creating your secret sauce begins with absolute honesty about your identify; the environment in which you operate; what your culture needs to be to align with your strategy; and the resources available to get you there.

Action Question: How does your culture need to look, feel, and act in order to maximize your strategy within your operating environment?

Master the fundamentals before you go for distinctive. It feels as if every article or conference presentation about culture features a cool idea that captures everyone’s attention. It could be Zappos paying people to leave, Google providing free meals, or giving every employee a new iPhone like Endagon Innovations. These are great additions, but adding distinctive elements before you get the fundamentals correct hurts more than it helps.

Paying people to leave, as an example, makes no sense until you master the basics such as treating people with respect, trust, open communication, and accountability.

Action Question: What are the fundamental promises and expectations that form the foundation of your culture, and how well are you performing to meet them?

Focus on adapting and applying principles rather than adopting features and activities. Metal Toad, a technology consulting firm that helps companies modernize their business, is exceptionally proud of its kegorator. Then again, who wouldn’t be proud of a do-it-yourself project that includes a 23-inch display with real time stats on the beer? An in-office beer dispenser may not make sense for your organization. But the principles of trust, work/life balance, community, an innovation might. Sometimes the thing is more than just the thing. It is a representation of a principle that is crucial to who and what you are.

Action Question: What are the principles that you need to adapt and apply from the activities of others to create your ideal culture?

When in doubt, default to the relationship. Managers pay attention to “hard stuff” like metrics, process, structure, budgets, and policies. The best leaders focus on “soft stuff” like shared values, common goals, trust, and loyalty because they build relationships. Focusing on the hard stuff allows you to mandate compliance. Building relationships creates volunteered commitment and accountability.

Action Question: Does your culture mandate compliance, or does it leverage the power of volunteered commitment and accountability that stems from strong relationships?

A vibrant, compelling culture is the intangible that allows you to set your organization apart in a world where customers see very little that is different. A cookie-cutter approach based on a proven recipe is better than leaving your culture to chance. Here’s the ultimate question: Do you want a culture that is based on the same recipe everyone is using, or do you want the secret sauce?

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author, speaker, and leading authority on helping organizations achieve positive results in a world of accelerating change. To bring Randy to your next meeting, visit, email [email protected], or call Michelle Joyce at 704-965-2339

*Randy Pennington has no formal affiliation or financial position in any of the companies mentioned in this post.