Is culture at the core of a more sustainable company?

Culture-Strategy-Capital PyramidCEO’s talk about culture incessantly. Why? It’s in the CEO manual! (Just kidding, there isn’t one, wish there was, probably would have helped me a lot along the way).

Seriously, why do leaders and especially CEO-types care about culture? And what exactly is culture, anyway? Well, of course, among the literally thousands of business books published every year, I’m sure you could find hundreds of answers to both questions.

However, to save some time and spare you some consultant-speak, suffice it to say that culture represents the foundation of the organization.  Culture, in its simplest form, is a collection of characteristics emanating from the organization’s core values.  As such, culture is the keystone upon which the organization determines its strategy and capitalization. From there, the organization builds the necessary infrastructure, processes, technologies, etc., to enable execution.

CEO’s Focus

So, CEO-types rightfully care about culture because, without a strong foundation, the organization can easily become conflicted, misguided and unsuccessful (hence the multitude of speeches, retreats, consultants, campaigns and other initiatives focused on defining, improving and celebrating our businesses’ culture). Given the importance of culture, these efforts and the concern they represent are laudable, however, they consume a lot of resources. Before going down one of these paths, is there a litmus test for culture, and whether it’s trending correctly?

We submit that one of the best pieces of evidence of the – or, in the extreme, a – culture is the organization’s commitment to sustainability, as expressed in its deeds. You may recall that, despite its many connotations (including environmental issues) we define sustainability broadly, to also include older notions of community involvement, and more current & strategically-aligned concepts of social entrepreneurship. As a leader, you talk the talk on core values (like sustainability), but does your organization walk the walk (show a compliant culture through its actions)?

To find out, take a look around:

  • What are your employees doing as a group for the betterment of society in your markets?
  • What are they doing together, in the name of your organization, on their own time and without being prompted?
  • What nexus, if any, can you draw between these activities and business decisions that are being made?
  • How are their actions being made known to the world, i.e., how are their beliefs being expressed?
  • Who are the prominent employees in these efforts and what are their backgrounds, skill sets and roles in the organization?
  • Finally, and most importantly, what if anything is your organization doing to support these efforts?

Answers to these questions are great clues to your organization’s culture and its consistency with your core values. Hopefully, you’ll be happy with the results but, even if you receive a wake up call, at least you know. Take the test. You can’t fix problems you don’t know about.

More on that later. In the meantime, thanks as always for reading, distributing, and commenting.

Denis Brosnan is the Principal of YellowPark Garden which provides executive leadership expertise and assistance in economic and societal development initiatives.  He is also Chairman of the Board of Directors of Talk About Your Future, Inc., a not-for-profit which links urban public school students with business professionals.