• Erin H

WHAT REALLY IS COMPANY CULTURE? | PART I

You hear the phrase "company culture" thrown around a lot, but what really is it? And who’s ultimately responsible for it?

If someone asked you to define company culture, how would you respond? It’s hard, isn’t it? We think we know what it is, but it often seems a bit intangible. To help answer this question, I’ve asked my good friend, Kelsey Ley, company culture + HR strategist, to break down this elusive concept in the first of a series of posts about corporate culture.


(Side note: I am so excited about this series, you guys! Kelsey is so smart and talented and if you’re looking for a little help to get your culture back on track or level up, I HIGHLY recommend reaching out to her here.)


What company culture is (and is not)

Too many organizations confuse ping pong tables and company-sponsored happy hours with culture. When integrated intentionally, those things may positively contribute to the culture, but often they are disconnected attempts to create false positive energy in the organization. Therefore, company culture must go beyond the peripheral corporate-sponsored activities.


Setting the culture of an organization starts with defining core values. Those core values then become the foundation for the culture, which impacts how employees think, act and respond to situations not documented in an employee handbook. The internal culture is reflected externally in the way your team responds to client needs, so designing an intentional culture is a big deal because it impacts how you do business (and, thus, your bottom line).

“Company culture is a collection of habits, rituals and patterns that, when aligned with organizational values, energize a team to bring their best selves to work so everyone can achieve a shared vision.” — Kelsey Ley

What makes a great culture and how can a company craft one? Start with these steps:

  1. Clearly articulate organizational values. If the company culture is the sum of its core values, start by articulating those values. Document them in the employee handbook, include them in onboarding materials, review them at team meetings, include them in external job postings, etc. By integrating them into all aspects of the business, you’ll reinforce the values of the company and, therefore, build your culture around them.

  2. Map the internal employee experience. Knowing the customer journey is paramount to the success of any business. Because your company culture impacts that experience (see above), it makes sense to spend time understanding your employee experience first. A great way to do this is by mapping out the internal journey from onboarding to job advancement and training opportunities. Often this practice easily highlights ways to integrate meaningful benefits, rewards or processes that are reflective of the company’s core values.

  3. Hire the right people. People are the catalysts of your culture. The right hire can accelerate change and drive positive behaviors of people around them. The wrong hire, however, can clog the system with toxic behavior that negatively impacts the entire organization. When interviewing and hiring, find candidates that complement or align with company values. Like any good relationship, starting with a similar value system often leads to long-term success.

NOTE: This is not a free pass to hire only like-minded people. Looking for candidates who complement or align with company values is not the same thing as only hiring candidates who think and behave in the same way. In fact, hiring candidates who challenge the status quo is a great opportunity for growth. The key is to make sure candidates agree on the shared vision of the organization and, therefore, challenge the status quo with the intent of moving everyone toward enlighted growth.


Who’s responsible for company culture?

If it isn’t obvious by now, everyone is responsible for company culture!


We’ve been trained to believe that HR departments are responsible for the people side of any organization, so we put the onus squarely on them to set + manage the culture of the company. The problem with assigning the responsibility of company culture within one department is you remove accountability in all other departments.


Organizations need a system of transparency and accountability in place for all contributors—from the c-suite to people leaders to individual contributors. The system may live within HR, but it’s the responsibility of everyone to hold each other accountable to it. That system may look like designing a reward structure to reinforce positive behaviors, creating a compensation plan tied to achieving certain cultural goals or creating annual compliance training courses related to the core values of the organization. Whatever it looks like, it’s important that everyone is responsible for and accountable to it.


There’s a lot more to unpack in this section, so I’ll dive into more detail in future posts. For now, understand that, yes, everyone is responsible for the culture of their organization, but accountability looks a little different at each contributor level.


In next week’s post, I’ll detail how remote employees fit into the company culture. This is a very relevant topic as more employees find themselves in remote work situations. I look forward to sharing more with you!


-- Kelsey

Kelsey Ley is a Company Culture Strategist & Leadership Coach. Over the past 10 years as an educator, artist, and program director, she's managed 200+ people in non-profit organizations, start-ups, and small businesses. Through organizational development, systems thinking, and the design of collaboration, Kelsey's current work focuses on building people-centered teams through virtual trainings for individuals and company-wide engagements.


Learn more about Kelsey and connect with her on LinkedIn or Instagram.


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