Drinking the organisational culture cool-aid


I’ve been around the block a few times in terms of organisational culture. I have three big 6 CPA firms on my resumé, I’ve worked for a US stock quoted company, I’ve worked for a fully government owned development actor, I’ve worked as an advisor to a vice-prime minister. And now I’m a ComEx member of the Belgian subsidiary of a French stock quoted company. So yes, I’ve been around.


In most of these environments, I’ve seen organisational cultures being imposed. They were being directed from above. Culture by committee, as it were. A top line decided on what they wanted the culture to be, and that was what it was. If there was any participation from the bottom – which is where I was most of the time – I was not invited to participate. I was also not at all aware there was a concerted effort to develop a certain culture.

Culture cannot be imposed

Most if not all of those efforts failed. Partners at the CPA firms responsible for motivating us and showing us how to act, often acted contrary to what had been imposed. Most likely because it had been imposed on them as well. And because they did not display the tone at the top in line with what was in the documents, we felt we did not have to abide by these rules all the time either. It taught me that culture cannot be imposed. A culture of an organisation is what it is, and the best you can do, as management, is to reflect this in your day-to-day behaviour.

Some organisations know how to ‘do’ culture

It’s been a breath of fresh air to actually find such a behaviour with my current employer. Perhaps because I have more access to the tone at the top, I see and feel values that are actually effectively being lived. And the organisational values and the related culture exists because it is everywhere in the behaviour at all levels of the organisation. Does that mean that errors in judgment are not made? Not at all, but the culture allows for an open discussion of such errors.

Discretion advised

I find it interesting that an organisation that does not tout its values has such a strong set of values that directly influence its culture. Perhaps it’s because I see these values being lived and exemplified by its top management, from the worldwide CEO on down. I see explicit respect from the top for collaborators at all levels.

Reference framework – a 2013 McKinsey Quarterly article

In April 2013, this article appeared in McKinsey Quarterly. Titled “Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture” it described key cultural issues contaminating or enhancing corporate performance. A short excerpt:

In the highest-performing teams, analysts invested extensive time and energy in coaching, teaching, and consulting with their colleagues. These contributions helped analysts question their own assumptions, fill gaps in their knowledge, gain access to novel perspectives, and recognize patterns in seemingly disconnected threads of information.


That strong cultural dimension of exchange between collaborators within the organisation is very present in my current environment, and it solves a lot issues that some organisations with better formal informational exchange systems continue to struggle with.

No shortcuts – the law of the harvest

So if you want to establish a strong corporate culture that enhances performance, there are no shortcuts. You will need to give, and give big. You will need to invest.

It also aligns with one of the key lessons the late Stephen Covey taught in his “7 habits” courses. Explaining the law of the harvest, Covey said: “Did you ever consider how ridiculous it would be to cram on a farm-to forget the plant in the spring, play all summer and then cram in the fall to bring in the harvest?” It’s the same with culture. You build it now for results later. There are truly no shortcuts.