Why is Culture Such a Difficult Concept?

About 6 months ago I was at a conference and the presenter brought up Zappos as the shining example of a company that has a strong culture that translates into sales. The person next to me leaned over and said, “Man, can’t anyone come up with more examples?”

“Sadly,” I replied, “The reason Zappos and Southwest Airlines and Trader Joes and Cliff Bar and the small handful of companies are mentioned time and time again is because there aren’t any other ones to take their place.”

Yes, there are small, up and coming companies who have put their faith in the idea that building a strong company culture will lead to happy employees and happy customers and big profits and I look forward to the day that these companies take the place of Zappos in these presentations and I’m pretty sure it won’t take them very long. But people watching these presentations are hungry for results. Big, impressive results. And saying that Modcloth has $20 million in revenues or Etsy makes $314 million when the audience isn’t even hip to their brands is a tough sell.

But the question I really want to know the answer for is why is it so hard for established brands to implement a strong culture? And I have found a couple of answers to that question:

  1. Culture comes from leadership and the leadership isn’t committed to it. The leaders behind the companies whose cultures aren’t strong aren’t believers. They were taught at the school of hard economics and something like culture just sounds willy nilly to them. Sure, they hire brand consultants to come in and create a statement and put up posters, but they don’t think it’s all that serious.
  2. Employees in a weak culture have become cynical, at best, droned at worst. I bet that you can go back to the early few months of 99% of any employees record and show enthusiasm, initiative, eagerness and a desire to learn and grow. I know very few people who pursue a job because they just want to sit at a desk and watch a clock. But weak culture companies have a way of sucking the life out of their employees. And most likely they’ve fired the employees the company can’t break. You know these ones. The trouble makers. The ones that question. The ones that fight for change. Too many of those stubborn ones hanging around may actually give the drones hope to care again. Get rid of them.
  3. The connection between strong culture and results is still a bit fuzzy. There have been lots of studies and books written on the subject that show that strong corporate cultures out perform weak ones, but the correlation isn’t strong enough to say, “Without a shadow of a doubt, the reason here is culture.” It’s because lots of the evidence is qualitative rather than quantitative. “Employees who are happy make your customers happy.” And even when numbers are put to that statement, it’s a hard one to prove direct correlation with. This sucks. Because in our guts, we know this is true. We just need to get better at proving it.
  4. There is still too much lip service and lazy implementations that don’t work. Too many companies do the exercises and print the wallet cards, but very few of them really understand how deep cultural values have to be implanted in an organization. Years ago while interviewing Tony Hsieh for my book (I was one of the first people to talk about them btw ;)), I asked him about some of the family values and he said something like, “The one that trips people up is ‘Be Humble’. We don’t hire self-proclaimed rockstars or gurus at Zappos.” When I asked him if I’d get the job, he replied, “Probably n0t.” That demonstrated a deep commitment to those values. It’s part of hiring, training, customer interactions, business development and partnerships, merchandising, the way they market, communicate…everything.

It’s sad, really, but it looks like we are going to have to be patient for the up-and-comers to create some good solid data on the correlation to make this a MBA endorsed business practice. And someone will create a sort of ‘standards’ and processes that will fly in the face of what it really means to have a strong culture (ie. intrinsic, rather than extrinsic motivators). Until then, I think it’s a-ok to shine our light on Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Trader Joes, Etsy, Modcloth and anyone else that puts culture at the core of their organization and wins because of it. Because, well, they are well worth celebrating.

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Categories: eMarketing, entrepreneurship, featured, marketing

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.


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11 Comments on “Why is Culture Such a Difficult Concept?”

  1. November 17, 2012 at 23:05 #

    Hey Tara,

    You make some great points, here. I too am tired of the Zappos example.

    I worry about waiting for the next generation of leaders, though. Number one, they’re a long ways away, and two, there’s no guarantee that they won’t get brainwashed into complacency the same as so many others. Bureaucracy begets more bureaucracy .. culture is self reinforcing .. that’s how it works.

    From the research I’ve done, I agree, leaders need to own this. Lou Gerstner is probably most famous in mainstream corporate America when he said that culture was the biggest challenge in transforming IBM from hardware to services. And yes, culture is squishy, hard to define. Drucker called it “amorphous” ..

    What I think we need to do to attack culture change is to understand it better, in practical, more accessible terms. I’ll offer this definition – “the shared sense of behaviors that define success in this organization” ..

    If we start with that .. wordsmith it a bit .. then we can agree it’s about changing behaviors. We need to see the task as redefining the current state vs. the desired future state in very clear, meaningful terms.

    Old culture behaviors are a, b, and c.
    New culture behaviors are x, y, and z.

    Leaders need to get behind that, supporting x, y and z through visible incentives (sure, Dan Pink fans, not necessarily with money .. recognition and praise goes a long way) .. what’s most important though is that everyone .. and I mean everyone .. needs to own it. Believe in it. Embrace the vision. It’s the only way.

    I share your frustrations here. It’s a common story.
    It’s time we take a fresh look.

    As in so many difficult problems, the only way “out” is “through” ..


    • November 18, 2012 at 17:01 #

      I really love your definition. And ‘amorphous’ is a very good way to put it. Have you read Gary Hamel’s column?

      • November 18, 2012 at 18:52 #

        I haven’t Tara, can you share the link?

        I did quote Gary Hamel in my last book, though, and it’s relevant to the leadership demands for culture change .. ““If you have people who want to do something new, create a place, an incubator .. a climate in which they can innovate.”

        Other good sources on culture, dated but helpful grounding: E.Schein, C.Handy


      • November 18, 2012 at 19:19 #

        Here is his column in the WSJ: http://blogs.wsj.com/management/ (Management 2.0) and my favorite post by him is: http://blogs.wsj.com/management/2010/01/13/the-hole-in-the-soul-of-business/

        I’ll definitely check into Schein and Handy! Thanks!

  2. November 17, 2012 at 23:52 #

    The proof of a connection between culture and results is an organization’s survival . To me, IBM has some lessons that trump the media favorites. They’ve been around for longer than I have, and have endured. No doubt their culture has changed. If a culture can’t change, external changes will break it.

    There’s an intersection between brand and culture. Brand is the story you tell the outside world. Culture is internal. Example: Starbucks. It’s pretty rare to see an employee lose his/her composure, no matter how gnarly that line is, or how abusive a customer is. I’ve never seen a manager “coach” a barista, either. Culture is grown and tended behind the scenes. Brand is at the front of the house on display for all to see.

    Execution is what’s hard about culture. You’ve got to keep behavior in an organization continually moving towards a defined ideal. This requires leadership, vision, storytelling abilities, honesty, and mad discipline and a craftsperson’s attention to detail. Culture has got to be infused in the most quotidian interactions, and in the grander visions and actions. That’s tough when we’re focused on something that might feel more important — “shipping.”

    May Zappos, Etsy, Modcloth et al survive as long as IBM, the Girl Scouts, and the much younger Starbucks. Then we’ll know that their cultures are truly successful.

    • November 18, 2012 at 17:03 #

      Leadership leadership leadership!! :) Agreed.

  3. November 18, 2012 at 03:09 #

    Culture is a companies written (10%) and unwritten (90%) rules of how it’s people deal with each other, It is how people create and relate with each other. It can also be the ultimate unfair advantage for any company brave enough to honestly examine and continually work at building trusting, vulnerable relationships.

    • November 18, 2012 at 17:03 #

      Love this: Culture is a companies written (10%) and unwritten (90%) rules of how it’s people deal with each other…

      SO good.

  4. November 23, 2012 at 01:06 #

    So this isn’t “corporate” but if you want to see some powerful cultures at work, take a look at the United States Marine Corps. I worked in the Pentagon for 5+ years and if you want some external validation, check out Making the Corps by Thomas Ricks.

    While not corporate, the things that the Marines do are both echoed in this article and doable in the corporate sector. I think it all starts with boot camp. Of all the Services, the Marines have made a clear choice that their “onborarding” while be focused on passing along the foundations of culture. I have one friend who pointed out to me a rather brightly colored jacked with the USMC bulldog on the back – he said he bought while waiting to come home from boot camp. He also said he’d probably never wear it again but he was so caught up in the moment, it seemed like a “great idea.”

    After boot, USMC has a clear mission – Every man a rifleman – clear, simple and easy to judge something as basic as staying physically fit against. I think that corporate culture has to have that clear of a central message – not to make great bumper stickers – but because it helps us judge our daily actions. That helps the culture to become self-reinforcing ;-)

    The Marines also take action to demonstrate their culture to the outside world. They include wool in most if not all of their uniforms. If you wonder why this is important you should watch someone in a different Service stand up after a meeting and then watch a Marine stand up. The Marine’s uniform will still be creased and the other’s will be wrinkled. The difference is clear.

    Onborarding is about culture. Clear, simple mission. Outward evidence of mission. All important factors and all factors that are transferable to the corporate sector.

    • November 23, 2012 at 19:01 #

      Love this. What a great example!


  1. The Hole in the Soul of Business | Tara Hunt - November 18, 2012

    […] to the forefront. And how do you ensure that this innovation is focused and not haphazard? Strong culture and leadership. The more your employees understand and are invested in your brand, the better their ideas will […]


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