Growing a Company Culture: What Kind of Trellis Are You Building?

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I have been talking with my advisory board a lot about company culture lately. I recommend Teague’s recent post in which he explains why he thinks you can’t “build” company culture, you have to “grow” it. I like his analogy of training a bonsai tree or cultivating a vine on a trellis. It takes patience and a long term view. Growing a culture is an interactive process in which you are given opportunities to shape the culture by how you respond to the organic growth and to the challenges of the environment.

For example, The Motley Fool perennially makes the list of top places to work because they have figured out how to take the challenges they face and turn them into opportunities to reinforce their company culture. When they faced the negative impact of the 2008 economic downturn, they brought everyone together and said we have to cut costs, but we are not going to lay anyone off.

They decided not to match employee 401(k) contributions until the market came back. When the market rebounded in 2009, the company matched the contributions it had missed as well as the investment returns employees would have gotten on those contributions. The way they responded to the crisis reinforced the values they have espoused about the importance of their employees in a manner that has had lasting positive effects on employee retention and recruitment, not to mention a positive impact on one of the toughest things to grow – trust.

It is important that what you do is consistent with what you say – “walk the talk” as the saying goes. It also matters not only what you do, but how you do it. During the school reform movement of the 1970s, there was a broad realization that students were not only learning the content and the deliberate objectives of the classroom curriculum, but they were also learning from the process used to teach them. This so-called “incidental learning” proved to be a much more powerful factor in establishing later behavior patterns than previously thought.

Long after students forgot the content, they still remembered the process. More often than not, that process had relied on deference to authority, individual competition for scarce rewards, rote memorization, and socialization to narrow norms for creativity. As it turned out that process did not prepare them well to be innovative and team-oriented or to become self-motivated life-long learners once they entered a rapidly changing workplace.

The same “incidental learning” dynamics apply to growing a company culture. New employees don’t just learn the content of the business, they learn how the business actually operates by observing the behavior of their colleagues and supervisors. They learn from the choices that are made, how they are made,  and how they are implemented. They evaluate whether these actions are consistent with the values espoused by the leadership and the veteran staff.

So if you want to grow your company culture, look at each tough choice that comes your way as a gift, because it gives you the opportunity to shape the culture. Think of each of these choices as steps in building the trellis on which the vines of your company or organization will grow towards the values you espouse. You might start by making a candid assessment of the health of those vines and whether your trellis may need some repairs or additions to help you cultivate continued healthy growth.


4 responses to “Growing a Company Culture: What Kind of Trellis Are You Building?”

  1. Great observations. Reminded me of a recent management retreat I attended where we were supposed to identify causes and solutions to poor staff survey results. The number one issue that came out was “lack of trust”. This can not be won back quickly.

    In the words of one of my mentors, “it takes 10 “atta boys” to make up for one “Oh shit””

  2. Sure, there are embedded messages about how we do things here, and what’s important here all throughout the organizational culture. The smart cultures, like Motley Fool and Google and Apple (on most days) are ones where those messages are managed openly and explicitly . . . so that when people arrive in the org, their survival isn’t completely dependent upon their ability to sniff out the smoke signals . . .

    And that all depends upon what is important in the organization, which drives decision making . . . which is what staff see . . .