07/01/2011 04:50 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2011

What the Heck Is Corporate Culture?

"We know what training is, but what the heck is 'culture'?" Those words were spoken by the new owners of the company I had spent 10 years helping to build from a small regional player to the recognized national industry leader. These corporate leaders were referring of course to my job title as Chief Training Officer, in charge of training and cultural development.

I was at once relieved and scared by their reaction to the 'culture' reference and shook my head as I could see the end was near. The relief came from the fact that we were finally selling the business and I could move on, full-time, to expanding my own coaching practice and finding clients that I could help grow and develop the way I'd done it there.

I was scared because it was clear to me that the new owners of the company didn't realize that what made us a success as a company wasn't just our employees, contracts, reputation and cash flow. What made us great as a company was our culture. In fact I had, as training officer, asked the question many times over the years, and the answer to the question "what's the best part of our company?" was almost always: "The culture."

As a coach marketing myself to new companies I had to pull back, though, from saying 'Culture Coach for hire' and just say 'Executive Coach.' It seemed to me that people understood when I told them that I was an executive coach, or a performance coach or even a life coach, but when I told them I was a Culture Coach I was usually met with a blank stare.

I realized that in order to have my vision realized and contribute to the way the world works, I'd have to come in as a more user friendly labeled type of coach and it's worked, so far. But again: culture?

Culture is an often overlooked and under appreciated tool for creating successful organizations


The Wikipedia definition of Corporate Culture is " ... an idea in the field of organizational studies and management which describes the psychology, attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values (personal and cultural values) of an organization." Simple, eh? Maybe not.

As in the story of the CEO who says to the head of HR, "I've been hearing a lot about the value of an investment in corporate culture: go buy us one!" there is a bit of education to be shared on culture and the value for all businesses, even the smaller ones. Over the next few weeks I'm going to share some ideas on culture and hopefully get some feedback and ideas from readers.

I'd like to begin by asking anyone who has a managerial or ownership stake in a business to begin noticing what is the culture they've created in their workplace. Ask around, of your employees and customers, vendors and others, "How would you describe the culture of our company?." I'd be curious to hear the responses.

Don't think you have a culture? You do -- every business does. It's just a question of whether or not it works for you and if it's a conscious choice you're making.

It's not something you want to leave to chance and, if you're interested in growth or creating breakthroughs, focusing on culture can be the best investment you can make BEFORE investing in new employees, machines or marketing.

Start here to go there.

I welcome any discussion or comments here. It's a chance to say something good about your corporate culture or tell your horror stories. See you next week.