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What is company culture? A guide to drive success
Image by Anahi Alanis

10 min read

What is company culture? A guide to drive success

Learn about the benefits of a healthy company culture, and ways of implementing better practices.

Company culture is the glue that holds your company together— and it comes down to your organization's shared set of values, goals, attitudes, and practices.

A strong culture is an important factor for success. It impacts everything from employee retention to your bottom line. Taking the time to nurture it with integrity will have positive returns.

If you haven’t yet got a handle on company culture, this article is for you. We dive deeper into what precisely shapes culture, its importance, and steps you can take to identify it.


Table of Contents

What is company culture?

What is not company culture?

What defines company culture?

Importance of culture in your organization

What does company culture impact?

How do you know your company culture, and how do you find it?

Design an impactful corporate culture strategy



What is company culture?

A straightforward way to think about company culture is that it’s “the way we do things around here”, said Laurie Bennett, company culture coach and co-founder of Within People.

Organizational culture captures the beliefs and behaviors that define “who we are, why we’re here, and how we do what we do at this organization”.

Corporate cultures work in a similar way as cultures around the world. It’s shaped by the rituals, traditions, and ways of seeing the world shared by and unique to a group of people. In this case, every employee at work.

And like any type of culture, they survive or die according to how actively we live them.

That may sound a bit nebulous. So, let’s look at a tangible example. Let’s compare the culture of two imaginary software companies: Skip and Hangar (software companies have funny names).

Skip has a culture of innovation.

Things move quickly at their company, and the office is fizzing with employees collaborating in creative sprints. They release updates to their product every week. There are frequent bugs in this software, but that’s ok; it’s how they learn and move forward. They go back and fix the bugs quickly and make fast progress because of this.

Hangar has a culture of craftsmanship.

The company is more deliberate, and everything moves a little slower. They design by hand, and each bespoke release bears a personal touch. They release updates every four weeks, but the updates are near-perfect.

This is just one simple example of company culture differences, but it clarifies what culture is and how it impacts business.

Neither of these cultures is stronger or weaker, or better or worse than the other. It just affects how work gets done and the type of work that’s valued. Which, in turn, will attract and retain different types of employees and customers.


What company culture is not

Before we get too much deeper, there are a couple of myths to bust.

Company culture is often confused with things that look like culture but aren’t. Fun things you do and free stuff you give people to make them happy.

Those are nice, but they’re not your culture unless they’re rooted in the authentic truth of why your company exists and what it stands for.

They’re, by definition, perks—the cherry on top of the ice-cream sundae. And if your cultural ice cream is awful, no amount of cherries is going to make up for it in the long run.

Here are some things to watch out for, according to Laurie.

  1. Foosball tables, beanbags, and complimentary breakfasts. This is often seen in companies that want to make their office look like Google's, hoping that their bottom line will look the same too. Unless you're also investing in empowering your people to be creative—like Google’s famous 20% thinking time—interior design is all you’re working on.

  2. Keep an eye out for “the things that make it nice to be here but aren’t connected to what we do.” Seeing things we do for our ‘culture’ as very separate from ‘things we do for our work’—like going for drinks together every Friday, but making little effort to work together in the day—is a band-aid on a broken leg.

  3. “Words written on walls or in brand books that aren’t actually lived every day.” Famously, Enron’s values of Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence were carved in marble above their front door but clearly weren’t etched into the behaviors of its leader. In the end, your culture is what you do, not what you say you do.

What defines company culture?

Company cultures are built on a blueprint of purpose and values. These provide the enduring reference from which company cultures are defined and lived.



Purpose describes why a company exists. It’s like an infinite goal—you can’t check it off a list when it’s complete. It’s the passion that fuels everything you do.

Purpose provides a North Star for a company, giving meaning and direction to what it does.

Apple’s purpose is to empower the individual to think differently, and it’s fuelled decades of creativity and innovation that have changed the way we work, listen to music, and communicate.


These are the core behaviors that define how a company and its employees do things—all things—from hiring people, to decorating the office, to making their products.

As a set, values provide a brief for how to behave (and how not to behave), setting an expectation for the kind of people a company wants to attract and how they’ll work together to be successful.

A great company culture example, Zappos is known for its outstanding customer service, where staff can be themselves, go off-script, and spend as long as it takes on the phone to solve a client’s problem.

Their ten core values enable them to attract people who make the right connection and imbue their customer support conversations with the right feeling. They don’t need a stilted conversation tree or automated jargon.


Importance of culture in your organization

Now we understand what company culture is (and is not), let’s dig into why it’s so important. The detailed list of reasons is long, but here are four key points that sum it up nicely:



Makes a company a team

Your culture knits together the different people at your company and keeps them aligned. If your company culture is unclear, it breeds fear and mistrust instead of safety and cohesion.

But once your culture is clear, different perspectives and viewpoints can all gather behind it with a common purpose. Your culture sets consistent expectations for how people behave and work together, even with different skill sets.

Guides decision-making

A declared and authentic company culture provides long-term direction and a framework for making consistent decisions in an ever-shifting environment. It’s a critical, creative constraint for innovation and growth, preventing workers from wandering off down the garden path.

Attracts and keeps talent

If your culture provides meaning, you have the best chance of attracting people who believe in what you stand for and want to give their all. If your culture is transparent and authentic, you’ll attract and keep the people who are best suited to it and lose those who aren’t.

Increases customer loyalty

Your company culture is important as it underpins a relationship with customers who don’t just buy what you do but buy into it. And provided you live that culture consistently, they’ll try to find a way to stick with a company they believe in.


What does company culture impact?

Your company culture influences teamwork, productivity, efficiency, and turnover rates.


Try not to think of company culture as an isolated thing, an ongoing project that lives in one corner of your business.

Because it doesn’t exist in isolation, company culture flows between everything in your business, impacting everything. No department, team, or person is left untouched.

To give you a better idea, here's what impacts your company culture and helps drive success.

  • Talent attraction and retention. People want to do work that has meaning for them. Having a stand-out culture and employer brand helps people know where they belong,  that their workplace is a good fit, and helps them stick around.
  • Employee wellbeing and performance. People who feel safe and able to be themselves are happier and achieve higher performance.
  • Customer experience. How you treat your people impacts how they treat their customers.
  • Strategy and decision-making. Culture helps you know why and how you want to grow. It helps elevate you as one of the desired, great companies to work for.
  • Innovation. Purpose and values provide a ‘creative brief’ for adapting a product or service.
  • Differentiation. Culture helps you stand out by being the best version of yourself, not by finding a ‘space to own’ that’s different from the rest.

How do you know your company culture, and how do you find it?Pillar-Company-cul-image-5

Most companies don’t look to ‘find’ their culture at the start. It feels kind of obvious (we all know why we’re doing this) and a little unnecessary (we’re all sat around this one table).

Usually, it comes a little later…

  • When there are too many people to sit around that table, or in that office even.
  • When the unifying reason for starting the company has faded.
  • When the accepted ways of working and how people interact have been outgrown or overrun by processes and policies, introduced quickly to keep all those people straight and narrow.

The job of culture-finding is an exercise in distillation. Company culture is essential—it’s about making sure employees are encouraged to regularly share ideas, understanding what’s true about a company, and refining that into a clear framework that you can build belief in.

The task usually belongs to a founder or a leadership team. Sometimes it’s delegated to HR, but in the end, it tends to involve people throughout the company.

Here are a few tips for (re)discovering company culture:

Look around

The funny thing about company culture is that every company has one.

Look around. Why are people here? How are they working together? How does it feel? Your culture is there whether you like it or not. It’s just that some companies choose to define and nurture it with care and intention. And others don’t.

Look to the leaders

While every team member in an organization affects the culture, the leaders have the most significant influence. Leadership style is fundamentally about embodying and upholding what a company values. So, if leaders model the culture, it will thrive. If they don’t, it will lose credibility, and it won’t survive.

"Be yourself, everyone else is already taken." 
---Oscar Wilde

Look inside, not outside

Your culture is based on who you are as a company, not who others aren’t. Don’t focus on being unique; focus on being authentic. When are you truly at your best? Trying to be different makes you neurotic. Being authentic makes you trustworthy. In the end, nothing is more unique than genuine authenticity.

Look for clarity, belief, and confidence

Defining your purpose and values will clarify what your culture is based on. But, to turn a framework into a culture, you need every employee to feel and believe it.

It needs to be the story you tell yourselves every day. And you need to build the confidence to live it. Live it; lead by it and shape your processes, working environment, policies, and products around it.

Look out for pushback

The road to defining and living your culture can be a bumpy one. It asks people to look deep inside, to be open and vulnerable. Making decisions based on your values can sometimes be tricky. It might reveal to some that they aren’t in the right job.


Design an impactful corporate culture strategy


People who work for a great culture are empowered to be creative problem solvers. They’re enabled with resources and the freedom to initiate innovative projects, adapting to ever-changing circumstances. Transparency is vital; a strong sign of company culture is when decision-makers share top-down information and power so that employees can make autonomous decisions and come up with timely solutions.



Wrapping your head around company culture can be tricky. It’s an elusive, slippery topic. At first blush, it seems pretty easy to define… but the more you try to explain it, the more shapeless it becomes.

And because it’s hard to define (and quantify), it’s easy to ignore or neglect. But you shouldn’t.

Remember to look within your company to discover and establish your true values. Then live and enable them each day to keep everyone in your company marching to the beat of the same drum.


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Faye Wai

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