Culture – finding definition in the USA

Travelling to a summit on culture in the United States was centred on a definition on what this word ‘culture’ truly means for people and businesses. It’s the hot topic for all forward-thinking companies I encounter. They want to define it, share it and talk about it. The challenge is…up until now a ‘culture’ is regularly defined by intangibles. Or worse – it’s defined by generalisations and generic labelling. So for me, the 2019 Culture Summit in San Francisco was a chance to see just how American companies spearhead the new ‘culture revolution’. How do we make a culture truly tangible?

“Culture is both what you know is true and good about your company. It’s also what you know is true and bad – it’s always both”.

This quote was floated at one point and it sounds fresh and honest. Typically, a company with a ‘great culture’ is one that points to the people, the values, the mission being understood and a clear purpose that ‘everyone gets’. There’s nothing wrong with these areas as pillars. The reality is that everyone in a company most likely really has a different set of drivers for why they are there. The culture of the company may be one of these, and they ‘like it’, or it ‘suits’. It seems that the companies who truly have the strength of a strong culture have an almost innate tone of delivery and a sense of an interpreted culture.

Simply put…it’s the good shit we do and the bad shit we’re working on. And to that point – you’re always going to be working on the culture…it’s like your strategy and your new business plan. It never remains static. The people change, the management go in a new direction, you merge with a new business. The idea that a culture is a static point in time, in reality is pretty hard to prove. And defining it as exact for your people – harder.

All hail the merger

One of the major themes for the summit was how people are dealing with what seemed like an unending challenge with mergers and acquisitions. Almost every person I met was having some sort of existential dilemma with the ‘new team merger’. ‘How do we all just get along? How do we solve the challenge around the new office vibe…we were a like a family! Now we’re all grown up and I don’t like it. A lot of pain and from what I could tell wasted time and lack of clear strategy around ‘merging culture’ in a systematic way. Perhaps because it simply isn’t systematic – or that it takes open ways of thinking and connecting.

This challenge pops up a bit and while M&A of companies in our neck of the woods isn’t exactly the ‘de rigueur’– it does happen. Some of the tips offered include trying to find ways to engage early, and find those common points as people and as team members. The big message was though that ‘team offsites billed with teamwork activities like zip lining are far less effective than setting forward and having real engagement with each other. The ‘trust fall’ is well and truly a relic of the 1980s. Don’t try this one in the office and not with the new ‘Swindon’ team. Work hard early to build common ground and work together on what the future of the perceived culture looks like. Take the best of both and make it stronger. Sounds easy, right? Clearly not.

More to come

There were more meaty areas to discover at the conference around how to reward employees beyond just promotions and cash. There were more detailed focuses on engagement and inclusion. I’ll leave the ‘meeting we have after the meeting we just had’ for next time.

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