Corporate Culture: No Pain, No Gain

by Simon Green    Feb 24, 2009

For many CEOs, understanding and articulating what a company is - and how its people come together with products or services to set it apart from competitors, is what corporate culture is all about. In some circles, the mere discussion of corporate culture is guaranteed to provoke an explosive reaction from those who doubt its very existence.

The debate really starts with perceptions. Culture is often seen as ’soft’ or ‘touchy feely’. Whereas, in reality, it is one of the most challenging elements of managing any enterprise.

Why is this the case? It is because talking about territories, product life cycles, sales targets, margins and marketing budgets is easy. They are ‘real’ and ‘tangible’. Culture deals with the less tangible aspects - things like attitudes and behaviours - all of which combine to create the corporate culture.

Defining corporate culture

While most managers are familiar with the concept of corporate culture, many lack a complete understanding of what it is, if there is one and how it operates.  Moreover, companies do not see how influential it can be in creating a successful business and what role it can play in differentiating them from the mass of competition.  
Business leaders often assume that their company’s vision, values, and strategic priorities are synonymous with their company’s culture. Too often, these may only be words hanging on a plaque on the wall.
Culture shows up in both visible and invisible ways. Some manifestations of this ‘culture’ are easy to observe. You can see the dress code, work environment, perks, and titles in a company. This is the surface layer of culture.  The far most powerful aspects of culture are invisible. The cultural core is composed of the values in action, standards, paradigms, worldviews, moods, internal conversations, and private conversations of the people that are part of the group. This is the foundation for all actions and decisions within a team, department, or organisation.
There is no standard corporate culture that fits every high-performing organisation. It is what ‘fits’ your business strategies and goals that matters.

Culture is extremely powerful. The rules of the game, what behaviour is ethical and accepted, the mood of the organisation, and the enthusiasm of employees are all contained in the culture.

When culture drives positive and value-creating behaviour, it can give a company a distinct competitive advantage. Not protected or nourished, it can be a liability - a timebomb waiting to go off. If your leadership team has not pro-actively created a corporate culture to support the company’s purpose, then chances are that the culture is a hidden liability.

Creating and sustaining a healthy, vibrant culture requires reinforcement of the culture through daily and proactive conversations and communications. A challenge for today’s global companies is to create a strong, cohesive corporate culture that pulls all different geographical cultures together that ensures they can work as a unified team. Teams in each country have different worldviews, jargon, work hours, and ways to do things.  Language is an obvious hurdle!

As there is such diverse country cultures across Asia Pacific, trying to bring a corporate culture out from headquarters to various countries and find someone who is willing to embrace that and get it started is a real challenge. The goal is NetApp in China, NetApp in Australia, ‘not’ NetApp Australia

Local cultures are an important aspect to building and developing the corporate culture across the Asia Pacific region. It is important you find the delicate balance between corporate culture and the local country cultures, particularly when you move into North Asia.  Countries such as China and South Korea are steeped in history and their cultures are very ingrained. There are differences in values and priorities and these have to be taken into consideration. 

For example, at NetApp we have a very open work environment.  Everyone works in an open plan office; even our CEO sits in an open air cubicle. However in some cultures, it is important to have a separate office and leaders are seen to be hierarchical in nature. So we adjust some of our values to suit the local environment.

Corporate culture is often seen by your customers as a value proposition to doing business with your company. Your corporate culture will be exposed to your customers if it is strong enough and customers will get a feel for the kind of company you are, your willingness to go beyond and will continue to choose to do business with you because of it. 

Business leaders can pro-actively create a thriving culture by understanding what culture is and is not. Unfortunately, most business leaders receive little to no education on how to generate a culture. Culture building can be learned, but it takes an honest commitment from the leadership team of an organisation.

Creating and maintaining a unique work environment should be taken very seriously. It is a long term investment that will result in you attracting and retaining the best talents in your industry. It will draw customers because you’re the kind of company they want to do business with.

Corporate culture is listed as a key ingredient of success when times are good. It is rarely discussed during tough times as executives move to their managerial disciplines of strategy, planning and fiscal prudency. The reality is that your culture can be that secret ingredient that moves a company aggressively into an area of opportunity. How the people respond in tough times could be the difference between single- and double-digit growths - this is the hidden asset of corporate culture returning on its investment.

(The author is the vice president and general manager of NetApp in Asia Pacific)