Google the words “corporate culture” and you’ll get 804,000,000 hits. Clearly, there are a lot of us who spend time thinking about the culture we’re creating at work. You can literally buy thousands of books on the topic and read millions of articles.
Why does culture matter so much? Because, as we said in our very first column here at Forbes.com, culture is to a group as personality or character is to a person. Without it, you’d be dull and insubstantial. With a strong and positive culture, you can attract and retain the right team members and customers.
Culture is a vital driver of a thriving business. We probably all agree on this. So how do you know if your culture is getting the job done? Good cultures should meet three threshold conditions:
- Good cultures are durable
- Good cultures are useful
- Good cultures are beautiful
What do we mean by durable, useful, and beautiful? We explain below. But first, let us introduce you to Vitruvius.
What The Father Of Modern Architecture Can Teach Us About Culture
We didn’t originate the idea of building things that are durable, useful, and beautiful. Credit for that goes to Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman author, architect, and engineer born around 80 B.C.
Known as Vitruvius, his book De architectura is the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity. Despite being the Aristotle of architecture, you’ve probably never heard of him. But you have heard of Leonardo da Vinci, whose famous drawings of the human body are called the Vitruvian Man, and are rooted in the ideas of Vitruvius, who admired the proportionality of the human body.
Vitruvius said architects must be focused on three things: durability, usefulness, and beauty. As an Architect of Culture, you can do well to focus on those three things as well. Let us explain, with examples.
Durability is the ability to withstand wear, pressure, or damage. Your culture should have this kind of strength.
One of our favorite examples of a durable culture is the supportive and family-oriented culture created by the leaders at Tasty Catering, a leading Chicago-area catering firm. Tasty is a family business, founded by three brothers and staffed by food service professionals, many representing multiple generations from the same families. A decade ago, when the Great Recession threatened the company, then CEO Tom Walter felt layoffs were inevitable. Few things threaten a positive culture more than staff reductions: the goodwill you’ve built can quickly go out the window when jobs are on the line. Layoffs create serious pressure on a culture, especially if it’s a supportive and family-focused environment, and do lasting damage if not handled carefully.
At Tasty, Walter brought the financial concerns to the wider team, and they brought him an alternative to layoffs. Team member reduced their hours and take-home pay a little in order to save jobs overall. As a result, the company weathered the financial storm without losing staff, and the family-focused culture proved durable.
Durability does not mean your culture cannot change. Durable things can be changed, but changes occur through intentional processes or slow evolution, rather than through accident. When should culture change happen? When it’s no longer useful.
Vitruvius’s second principle is usefulness: buildings should serve the purpose for which they are created. A big box department store needs a different structural design than a hospital, because the buildings are designed for different purposes.
In buildings, usefulness is determined by function (department store vs. hospital), location (San Diego vs. Syracuse) and users (senior citizens or teenagers). Likewise, a useful culture must fit the company’s function, location, and members. The culture of an accounting firm is likely to be quite different than the culture of a marketing firm or a manufacturing company because the culture serves a different function. At the same time, the culture’s location and people exert an influence. Let’s look at two examples.
EKS&H was a Colorado-based award-winning CPA firm. (The company recently become part of Plante Moran.) EKS&H held open and honest communication as a core value; to make sure their culture reflected this, they adapted a compensation strategy for partners that was as transparent as possible. They also created compensation rewards for partners who refer clients to another team member, if that partner could provide better service. This is a great example of a culture that is functionally useful: the systems were designed to support the behaviors the culture desired.
When thinking about usefulness, location and the “users” of the culture matter as well, as we were reminded by Brett Teiken, CEO of Sundog Interactive, a Fargo-based marketing and technology firm. “If you’re going to ask people to live in Fargo to work for your company, you have to really offer them something,” Teiken told us. In Sundog’s case, they offer their mostly Millennial workforce a fun and creative work environment where work-life balance is encouraged. This culture is useful to the firm’s mission.
Vitruvius’s third and final quality of good architecture is beauty: good buildings should be appealing. A beautiful culture is naturally appealing: it’s pleasing to those who work within it.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What one company finds naturally appealing and pleasing may not be what satisfies the next company. One firm might find beauty in order, structure, and stability; another might find beauty in the unexpected, in bright colors and fast turns. As we said earlier, culture is to a company as character is to an individual: it should be unique.
Beauty is hard to define but has a “I know it when I see it” quality. Perhaps you’ve walked into a company, as a new employee, client, or vendor, and you’ve felt the immediate attraction of the culture: everything appealed, from the temperament of the people to the physical office space. That’s a sign of a culture that is beautiful to you.
Of course, culture goes much deeper than the superficial appearance of an office space. Cultures that are deeply appealing have the ability to make work meaningful. Beautiful cultures enable a healthy sense of belonging.
One of our favorite stories of this comes from New Belgium Brewing, makers of Fat Tire beer. New Belgium’s culture is designed to create a sense of trust and belonging, which they accomplish through rituals and systems. One ritual happens on your first day, when you’re given a key to the building.
“When they give you a key to the whole place on your very first day, it says, okay, this is what we’re giving you. Live up to it. And we do,” administrative assistant Jordana Barack told us. New Belgium team members find the culture beautiful and meaningful, because of the belonging and trust they feel there.
Measuring Your Culture
Is your culture durable – built to withstand pressure? Useful – designed to support the people and behaviors you want? And beautiful – appealing and meaningful to your team?
If so, then your culture is meeting its most basic obligations. Vitruvius would be proud.
Want to get more out of your culture? Our research has revealed 10 foundational actions that can help. Find them here, in our article on how you can become an Architect of Culture.