Okay, I can just about see your eyes rolling from here. You’re probably saying, “Not another column on the importance of culture in my business. I’ll bet he’s going to trot out things like ‘Culture and brand are two-sides of the same coin’ or ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’”

Well, here’s my problem. As far as they go, those statements are true. The problem for most business people is that so much that’s written about the importance of organizational culture seems superficial and not really helpful. Too often, discussions about culture seem to focus on things like foosball tables in the lunch room or concierge services for employees. These kinds of things are really only ornaments and should not be confused with the foundations of an organization’s culture.

Here are some quick pointers that can help you dig in.

It’s important to distinguish between culture and brand; the latter is simply shorthand for the basket of promises that you make and deliver to your customers. If the promises you make and the promises you deliver are different, well, sadly, that’s part of your brand too and you’re likely to encounter a few problems very soon. Your culture is everything your business does and says internally.

Let’s say your “brand” is to deliver vanilla—on specification, on time, on price and backed-up with prompt vanilla service to customers who only want vanilla, in a market where there are other competitive vanilla suppliers. What kind of culture would you need to support your brand?

Should you in the vanilla business be thinking first about cultural icons like foosball tables in the lunch room or concierge services for employees? No. At least not yet.

Here’s what you should be thinking about: In the vanilla business all your business processes must be aligned with making and delivering on your vanilla promises. Your accounting processes are part of your culture. In the vanilla business what would they be like? Your project management processes are part of your culture. In the vanilla business what would they be like? Your employee development processes are part of your culture! Say it with me now: In the vanilla business what would they be like?

I’m an HR guy with a few hundred words left in my word count, so let’s explore that last question for a moment with a few more leading questions. What kind of people would you want to recruit if the cornerstone of your brand was to deliver vanilla, on specification, on time and on price? I think they’d be people who could appreciate and thrive in a culture of disciplined processes.

What kind of values and measures would you want to incorporate into your employee performance processes? I think you’d value consistent commitment to measures that clearly contribute to the delivery of vanilla, on specification, on time and on price.

What types of “soft skills” training would you want if your brand means delivering vanilla, on specification, on time, on price? I think you might want training in team-building and project management skills that are aligned with your brand.

Back to foosball tables in the lunch room and concierge services for employees: Should these be cultural priorities in the vanilla business? Yes, if they help attract, retain and motivate the kind of people who will fit in the vanilla business. But if foosball tables and concierge services don’t support your brand, then they are simply window dressing and you shouldn’t fuss with them.

Word count is an important value in my editor’s culture, so let me summarize with these four suggestions for you:

  1. Begin with a very clear and complete description of your brand.
  2. Analyze what your business does and says and compare that to what your brand promises and delivers.
  3. Clearly describe any areas where culture and brand are misaligned.
  4. Fix them.

Culture: it’s really that simple.

Martin Birt is the president of HRaskme.comAfter serving seven years in the Canadian Army as a combat arms officer, he has enjoyed a thirty-five year career as a human resources manager, consultant and sought-after adviser to business executives. He can be contacted here.

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