Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is the Chief Product Officer at Get Spiffy and the founder of teachingstartup.com. Joe has a long entrepreneurial history in the Triangle that includes Automated Insights, ExitEvent, and Intrepid Media. He writes a column about management and startups exclusively for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Tuesdays.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The way we work is evolving dramatically. And if your company doesn’t evolve with it, it might be headed for extinction.

You’re probably hearing the term “company culture” more often and in broader context. Culture is no longer the domain of progressive West Coast startups and forward-thinking Chief People Officers. At some point over the last five years or so, culture got real.

Company culture has become important. It’s not only a factor in attracting and retaining talent, it’s become a part of the decision matrix for who will invest in you, who will acquire you, and even who will do business with you.

Joe Procopio (Photo courtesy of Joe Procopio)

You might be nodding your head, even if you’re not 100% on board with what company culture is. That’s perfectly fine. Because company culture gets misunderstood more often than it gets implemented.

Prologue: The Myth of Company Culture

Until about 10 years ago, I had never heard the term “company culture,” even though it’s been a part of my success for twice as long. As an entrepreneur, culture has always been a tool I use to make sure I get better people, less expensively, for longer, and with more productivity.

Culture used to be about making my company a cool place to work.

Then it became about making my company a unique place to work.

Now it’s about making my company the best place to work. For everyone.

But like all the other bleeding-edge tools in the business toolkit, when company culture went mainstream, it got misconstrued. Action got replaced by lip service. Programs and plans got replaced by parties and mission statements. Honest intentions got replaced by T-shirts.

When company culture is done wrong, it can look like either the cynical gray soullessness of Mike Judge’s Office Space or the hippie-dipped silliness of Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley

Yeah. Dude kind of nailed it. Twice.

Part 1: What is Company Culture?

I can tell you what I think my definition of company culture is. In fact, I think I just did in the prologue. Poorly. But my take on culture is top down. It was what I made it, and each time I got lucky reinventing the wheel.

So I went to get a better definition.

Lynn Walder is my go-to when I have questions about company culture. She’s spent years working with executive teams at various stages of growth across a myriad of industries.

“Culture is ultimately defined by the desired behaviors that leadership clearly and consistently communicates and then holds themselves and their employees accountable towards.”

This is the first rule of company culture. It can’t just be defined and communicated. It needs to be lived.

“Nothing will undermine a robust culture quicker than company leaders who preach their philosophy, but then do not practice it — especially under the most difficult of circumstances.”

Part 2: The Increasing Importance of Company Culture

In order to succeed in today’s hyper-competitive business landscape, we need to conform to how our workforce, and even work itself, is changing. Gone are the days of repetitive tasks, siloed responsibilities, and compartmentalized ownership of teams and processes.

In other words, spreadsheet and powerpoint jobs are going extinct. So are butts-in-seats management and keys-to-the-kingdom tech jobs. If you’re not innovating and collaborating in today’s workplace, your days are likely numbered.

The workforce that’s shaping to embrace this new philosophy has different needs, a different feel, and operates in a different manner.

Ten years ago, culture was my secret weapon. We’d hold bi-weekly meetings to discuss, measure, and improve the culture in our workplace. We’d shape policy with the employee first, not the bottom line. We did this because we figured out that, despite conventional wisdom, the employee fed the bottom line, not the other way around.

It sounds really simple, like we rediscovered fire, but let me put it another way and ask you which of these makes more sense:

“If we make money, everybody’s happy.”

That sounds correct, right? It isn’t. It’s actually:

“If everybody’s happy, we make money.”

And now, almost everyone has figured this out. I hear culture talked about in investor meetings, acquisition talks, customer visits, and prospect calls. Even when the person on the other end doesn’t 100% know what company culture is and how it gets developed, they want to know that ours is intact.

Part 3: How To Implement a Company Culture Plan

So company culture is great to talk about. But how do you implement it?

Once again, I’ll turn to Lynn Walder here. She has taken all her experience and wrapped it into an executable framework she calls the Foundational Hierarchy of Successful Cultures.

Image via Joe Procopio

“The goal is to offer actionable implementation guidelines that will amplify the best of times, but most importantly, pull you through the worst of times.”

Most of the mistakes made around company culture have nothing to do with intentions, but everything to do with execution. When I see culture implemented poorly, it’s usually due to leadership starting at the top and working their way down to the bottom, if they get there at all.

The proper way to implement a good, positive, lasting company culture is to start with a well-thought-out and tested foundation. So let’s start at the bottom.

  • “Crisis-Proof” Vision/Business Philosophy: Company leadership creates the foundation by basing all talent-impacting decisions on their company vision and philosophy. Leadership communicates this vision and philosophy internally, as well as in recruiting and onboarding messaging, and even externally on the website, social media, etc. In the worst of times, this is the star to steer by.
  • Transparent Internal Communications: This about implementing a formal and mature communication program within the company in order to enhance trust. Messaging company news to the workforce should be structured, planned, and honest at all times. This is a lot easier to do when leadership is proactive about this step in the platform.
  • Process Supported HR Philosophy: When talent has what they need to do the job, they perform that much better. At this level, we’re looking at the compensation, benefits, onboarding, training, and performance tracking and rewarding as all of those things relate to satisfaction and retention.
  • Community Building: I love that Lynn sees this as “Belonging, not just inclusion.” To put it simply, this is where life and work meet and blend, and it’s usually a big cross-section that is rarely addressed.
  • Location/Environment: When I mentioned before that my definition of culture used to be providing a cool then a unique place to work, this is that, and more. And unfortunately, a lot of companies stop there on their way down the chart. This is about making sure that the workplace accommodates all types of talent doing all types of work.
  • Perks: We know what these are. What we sometimes don’t do is make sure that what we offer aligns with the foundation of our culture all the way up the hierarchy.

Epilogue: Culture Is More Than Your Guide, It’s How You Work

Company culture isn’t just an idea, it’s something to implement, manage, and live. It’s critical for attracting and retaining the best talent, and it’s going to influence the decisions of those who want to invest in you or work with you.


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