“who is Derek Zoolander?”

Speaking with a new client, I was shocked when the topic of “culture” was brought up as a matter of importance. Not that the topic isn’t important, but that  a business leader outside of the HR/OD Suite would actually recognize and prioritize a subject matter that is usually viewed as a “soft” (aka “squishy,” “fufu,” “New Age”) component of an organization’s development and identity. Even from the ranks within Human Resources, “Culture Initiatives” are often met with dismissive rolling of the eyes. Let me admittedly throw myself in that category based on much of the experiences I’ve had within corporations when the dreaded announcement about a “culture project team” hit the masses.

But here I was with the opportunity and the audience to have a philosophical discussion about the inherent value of establishing a corporate culture; seeing as I had 30 minutes to kill, it was an easy choice to saddle up and have a dialogue.

Here’s the Catch-22 as it relates to corporate culture initiatives: you cannot, in my opinion, consciously create your company culture. You can create a “brand;” you can create a Mission and Vision (quick test – do you know the Mission/Vision statements for your respective company by heart?). You can promote “Values” and value statements, design learning and development curriculum, have a picnic, write a catchy slogan, or maybe even initiate free “Jeans Day.”

Nope, your company culture will define you. Your company, your department, and/or your team already have an identity. You already have informal traditions and methods; you have ways of getting things done. You have ways of reacting when under pressure; when taking (or not taking) risks; when making (or not making) mistakes, and when assimilating (or not assimilating) new members to the tribe. As a company goes through the different phases of growth, the culture will also change [read “Barbarians to Bureaucrats“]. Not because of a project to establish a new way of doing things, but as a bi-product of the actions and behaviors of the people making up the company. Instead of creating a culture, a company is better served defining their culture.

Be honest with yourself – don’t call your company “performance-based” if you give flat merit raises. Don’t call your company “entrepreneurial” if you require five levels of approval before action is taken.

KISS took off their makeup. Garth Brooks became Chris Gaines. Shelly Long decided to be a movie-star. Remember, just because you wear a badge, it don’t make you the Sheriff.

John “Whit” Whitaker is the Founder and Managing Partner of HR Hardball™. And don’t call him Boy John! To send Mr. Random-80’s music fan an email, or to submit your own thoughts for publishing on this site: