I wish I could give you a crisp definition of what the word culture, with regard to business, really means. It’s a tricky word that finds its way into most discussions regarding the workplace these days.

Like so many things, it’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

The thing is, every business has a culture. It may be strong or weak, positive or negative, or just plain hard to spot, but it’s like a form of internal brand in a way. It’s the collective impression, habits, language, style, communication and practices of the organization.

Some elements of culture are intentional, some are accidental. Some are rooted deeply in the ethos of an original employee group, some are created out of a lack of any real direction or clarity.

My belief is that a healthy culture is a shared culture, one created through shared stories, beliefs, purpose, plans, language, outcomes and ownership.

These aren’t little things; these aren’t things that you get right during an annual retreat. These are things molded over time with trust and passion and caring. These are things that evolve.

I don’t have all the answers, no one does, but I assure you this is the question that needs answering – How can I build a culture of shared commitment?

The following elements make up the foundation of a system of shared commitment.

Shared stories

The first step is to begin to develop, archive, curate and tell stories that illustrate what your business stands for.

Stories that tell why you do what you do, who you it for, why you’re passionate about it, and where the business is headed.

Throughout time great leaders have used stories to inspire commitment and attract community.

The central elements of a strong culture are the stories that employees tell themselves and each other. The why you would want to work here story, the orientation story, the here’s how we deal with challenges story, the here’s where we are headed story.
These illustrations are like oral traditions that allow culture to sustain, thrive and grow and it’s the job of the leader of the business to make story building an intentional act.

Shared beliefs

People want to work for more than a paycheck. Sure, they want to be paid fairly and in some cases the element of salary will be an important aspect of their decision to come to work for an organization, but perhaps more importantly, people want to work on something they believe in and they want to do that work with people that share their passion and beliefs.

This isn’t the same thing as saying, everyone in your organization has to maintain the same beliefs. However, by creating a set of core beliefs that everyone in the organization lives by and supports, you create a set of filters for how decisions are made, how people treat each other, how they treat customers, what’s expected, how to manage and even how to write a sales letter.

Shared purpose

For some time on this blog I’ve talked about the idea of connecting your passion with why you do what you do, or what some might call purpose.

In order to bring purpose fully into the organization you must determine a way to bring it to life and reinforce in every decision the organization makes.

This may take the form of an employee development program, foundation support, benefit package or community program. The key is to bring purpose to life by example. Your actions, or how you treat your staff, will speak far louder about purpose than any page in an employee manual. In order to create a shared purpose the staff must be your first customer.

Shared plans

The strongest, most productive cultures come to life when people know what to do and how to do it – In places where they are trusted to do go work and use their creativity to solve problems.

If you are to grow your organization to the point where it can serve you ultimate higher purpose, you’ll need to develop a system that enables people to manage themselves.

Now, that may sound a little foreign or perhaps even scary to anyone who’s worked in a typical hierarchical business structure, but it’s central to a fully alive culture.

The key lies in systematic planning thinking, clear accountability and consistent communication.

Shared leadership

While stories are an important way to attract and inspire people to join you on your journey, they can only take you as far as the leaders you develop around you.

After payroll is made and your business is generating sufficient cash flow I really believe that the leader’s primary role should shift to developing leaders internally.

In fact, as the owner of a business you’ll never succeed in reaching beyond where you are today until you are no longer the person that brings in the most work.

Teaching others to land the big fish, to tell stories, to create shared beliefs, to inspire and attract commitment means you have to invest time and resources in this very thing in a very intentional way.

This element of the shared culture comes by teaching your people what an ideal customer looks like, what a customer is desperately in need of, and how to communicate your core difference in a meaningful way.

It comes by teaching what everything costs, how profit is made, how every decision impacts a customer in some way. It grows by sending them to school, supporting their growth in other areas and demonstrating this is an organization that cares for the whole person.

Shared outcomes

One of the strongest ways to foster commitment is to get people to commit to a stake in the outcome of their work.

The only way I know to do this is to establish benchmarks, goals and indicators and then report and communicate progress religiously.

You must create reporting mechanisms that truly measure the most important components of your business. This will include key financial elements, but must strive to go far beyond into measuring success around shared beliefs and culture.

Shared ownership

The ultimate measure of commitment is achieved when people that work for your organization come to understand that they play a crucial role in creating the kind of company they want to work for – that the company is actually their most important product. (Of course the owner has to realize that first.)

This won’t happen until you help your people free themselves from the typical job descriptions and organizational charts so they can begin to manage themselves. It won’t happen unless they are excited about the journey they are on. It won’t happen until they fully understand how a dollar spent on a new desk equates to profit margin.

It won’t happen until they start thinking like an owner (and I mean in the good way) when it comes to meeting a customer’s needs. It won’t happen until everyone realizes they can help develop new business, build the community, create innovation, fix problems, right wrongs and make decisions that impact the organization on their own.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • Hi John,
    You did a good job writing on a topic where the crux of the difficulty is rendering concrete what is often subconscious or unconscious (as well as pervasive).

    To chew on this bone a bit further…
    1) How do you differentiate between beliefs and values? As you don’t mention the latter, I wonder whether you consider them synonyms. Beliefs are concepts one holds to be true; values influence how one perceives, behaves, communicates and reacts. An individual’s beliefs and values can be aligned…or they can part ways over time depending on experience and learning. Two individuals can have the same beliefs, yet their values may differ. A close look, for example, at Franco-American cultural differences provides many examples of this.
    2) You are quite right when you say “every business has a culture”. I’d go further and suggest that companies can be a complex puzzle of a series of different cultures: its organizational culture (see Trompenaars and Wooliam’s work on Guided Missile, Eiffel Tower, Family or Incubator typologies for example); its nationality (influence of the cultural context in which it was formed and operates); and the various cultures of staff members. It’s no wonder mergers and acquisitions often fail to achieve expected results: even when two companies come from the same country, their respective histories, cultures and stories remain powerful anchors.

    What you propose probably needs to be developed from the starting gate — either with newly-formed companies or project teams, and with a careful HR selection process to ensure that team members’ core *values* (and what motivates them) are in harmony.

    • Great comments Patricia – there is a ton that can be added to this as even at over 1000 words my only attempt was to create a framework.

      Each element could use an individual post and you certainly have to do more than put words on paper.

      I do use the words beliefs and values as one in the same and have written in the past (and in a book I’m currently finishing) on the idea of beliefs in action, which might more closely fit you definition of values.

      • Indeed John, that’s why you did a darn good job in 1,000 words :-).
        Hmm… beliefs and values as interchangeable words… not sure I’d buy that, but very open to discussion! After I’ll have read your book. When is it to be published?

    • Great stuff, Patricia.
      This stuff can indeed get confusing within a business, when in fact what is really needed is clarity and simplicity. One Shirlaws Cayman client showed us their statement of company values.. there were about a dozen of them.

      Through our own frameworks around “Intent”, we drive values down to a list of three, and their intent, their business purposes, down to.. yes, one word.

      Once you have that one word, the power is amazing.

  • John, wonderful post. You sound very much like a Shirlaws coach, these are the sorts of things we talk to business owners about all the time.

    Our business was founded upon, and still holds true to, the principle that value in business is created by a comabination of the commercial and the cultural aspects of business.

    We show clients every day that a strong and well aligned culture adds real equity value to their business.

    Let me know if your own purpose becomes aligned around helping other business owners and leaders find theirs, let’s then talk about you joining us ! 🙂

  • Andy Hanselman

    Greetings from the UK!

    Great article John – absolutely love it!

    My definition of culture (for what it’s worth!) is ‘The way we do things around here’. Some of that is deliberate, some of that just happens (always has!), some of it is good, and some of it not so good. In my experience the best businesses identify and establish what they want their culture to be and work hard to create and sustain it!

    The businesses that ‘do things around here’ in the way they want follow many of the things that you put forward – without doubt, it is all about ‘sharing’, whether it’s leadership, outcomes or ownership. It’s also about ‘championing their champions’ – rewarding those who live and demonstrate the preferred culture in their day to day jobs.

    I remember working with one client and was chatting to some of the front line staff who were consistently encouraged to go the extra mile to ‘delight’ their customers as a key driver of the culture. ‘What’s the reward for doing that?’ I asked. The response from the staff was ‘Reward? It’s more work!’ The senior mangers knew that if they wanted a job doing properly, they’d give it to those they could rely on. The result, the ‘best’ workers got lots of extra work, and the slackers got away with it!

    They was very little ‘sharing’, and it showed!

    Andy Hanselman

  • Hi John. I would say that in order to build a shared culture, there has to be “synergy.”  And you proved that right with all the topics you’ve discussed in this post.  

    In our company, we always come up with new services and tools for our customers, the latest that we have is Audience Builder. Now our staff’s attitude whenever there is something new is that – they always get excited and see everything as an new opportunity to help clients, and in return, will definitely help our company. We have developed this sort of – sychronicity of movements with  everyone in our company and the owner. But of course like what you’ve said – this didn’t happen overnight, the choreograpy of values and interests were “molded over time with trust and passion and caring.” http://bit.ly/ayeen2

  • It is true that with the onset of modernization this aspect of the region has been in abeyance for some time. However, the common cultural root among nations of this region cannot be over emphasized not only for historical reasons, but also for the sake of the present and the future.

  • Felix Widmann

    wow, really good article about shared culture. In the german business I work, we establish new forms of services for our customers. And those shared plans is what we want to provide other companies and help them to grow their business. 
    Excuse my english. Best regards from Germany.

  • Les Landes

    Nice piece, John.  I’ve played around in the culture arena for many years, and I’ll just share a couple of amplifying thoughts.  First, a clarification.  You say that “My belief is that a healthy culture is a shared culture …”  In fact, a culture is “shared” by definition – it’s not a question of your belief.  As you correctly imply later in the article, the only question is whether the culture along with its normative characteristics exsits as it does by DESIGN & INTENTION or by DEFAULT & RESIGNATION.  Sadly, in most organizations, it’s the latter.  Great cultures don’t just happen – they get created.

    And here’s thought on your question about a definition.  Several years ago, there was quite a good article about culture in Fortune magazine, and the author offered a tongue-in-cheek definition that I’ve always enjoyed – and which probably isn’t too far off.  Culture, he said, is what people do in the workplace when nobody is looking.  Not bad, eh?