Defining, building and maintaining a corporate culture

Corporate culture is the foundation on which an organization is built. It is moulded by a number of different elements (explained in detail below):

Corporate culture may change naturally as your startup grows and evolves. However, with a little effort, culture can be built to align with your business philosophy. Keep in mind that actively building and maintaining a culture requires ongoing and consistent effort, as well as a deep understanding of the influence each of the elements listed above bring.

Usually, culture is built on the philosophy, approach, and preferences of the management team, as they must truly believe in and live the culture in order to drive it throughout the organization effectively and genuinely. However, it is also important to consider the expectations of employees, customers, and board members in order to create a holistic culture.

Your business environment’s impact on corporate culture

Consider the type of business you are building, the industry you will be a part of, and how such organizations are generally managed. Think about the work your startup will undertake:

  • If the work is repetitive, a more structured, directive culture may be most appropriate
  • If the work is more creative or exploratory, with highly educated staff, a flexible, collaborative culture may be desired

Consider industry standards as well. For example, if the industry is known for high salaries, excellent benefits, or a serious commitment to learning and development, make sure you consider how these may fit into your culture. This is especially important if recruiting will be difficult for the skills you need.

Management philosophy, personal style and corporate culture

Management philosophy and personal style are key drivers of an organization’s culture. Management needs to determine how it is most comfortable operating. Several tools are available to help management understand their strengths, preferences and style. This helps to lay the groundwork for building a corporate culture. Please refer to “Understanding my management style in recruiting and building teams” for more information.

In the absence of such tools, the following questions can help management define a culture where it can be most successful:

  • Is the preference more directive or collaborative?
  • Are managers comfortable “letting go” of operational or development tasks?
  • Are managers more comfortable with a structured or flexible workplace?
  • Do managers need to travel a lot, or will they be consistently in the office?
  • Are questions and ideas encouraged?
  • How important is collaboration to the business?
  • How important is innovation to the business?
  • Is the social environment formal or informal?
  • Is “challenge the status quo” encouraged or dismissed?

Employee demographics, preferences and expectations

You will need to consider who you want to attract to your team, and what team members will expect. Use the following questions as a basis for discussion. While some may seem petty, these issues can significantly affect company culture.

  • Will team members expect to be consulted on decisions?
  • Will they expect support for training?
  • Will they expect flexible work hours?
  • Will they expect to be paid for performance, or on an automatic scale?
  • Will they expect the latitude to be creative and share ideas?
  • Will they expect a clear hierarchy?
  • Will they be driven by money and benefits, or more by the science, technology or cause?
  • Will they expect to work closely with others or in a more isolated way?
  • Will they expect to call management by their first name?
  • Will they be more comfortable and productive wearing more business casual?
  • Will social activities be important?

Expectations of customers and the board of directors

While corporate culture is primarily an internal endeavour, it can affect customer relations and the perceptions of your board of directors. Take the time to consider how your customers and board members will perceive the culture you create and nurture.

For example, if your corporate culture were to support informal dress, first determine whether or not your customers would see that as unprofessional. You may need to strike a balance.

Another consideration could be that some board members might view a flexible, open, mobile environment as uncommitted and chaotic. In this situation, you would need to select board members who understood and supported your culture. Or you might need to adjust your corporate culture a little to ensure the board could see your team was indeed committed and working hard.