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Ask an expert: what is corporate culture?

Published: Sep 2019

Elizabeth St-Onge, Partner, Oliver Wyman Financial Services

In the first of our ‘Ask an Expert’ series we speak to Elizabeth St-Onge, a Partner with Oliver Wyman Financial Services and a specialist in helping financial institutions evaluate and refine their corporate conduct and culture.

How would you define corporate culture?

I think it can be very hard to define. Often a company will point to its mission statement, value statements or code of conduct when asked about corporate culture. In a perfect world, corporate culture should align with these expressions – but in reality, it might not.

Loosely speaking, corporate culture is what people instinctively know to be acceptable – or unacceptable – within their organisation, regardless of what is written down as a value or mission statement. It is what people understand to be ‘the way we work or how we do things’. It is the behaviours that the organisation rewards and celebrates, and those that the organisation frowns upon or does not align with.

Corporate culture therefore constitutes the unwritten rules for how we do things. And unfortunately, this can be different from the stated values of the organisation.

What makes for a good or a bad corporate culture?

Good and bad cultures are hard to define because there is no single idea of what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You could visit many different organisations and experience vastly different cultures; it is never a case of having that singular ‘good’ culture and all else is ‘bad’.

What is really important is that there is a connection between the stated culture and the actual culture. It is important that senior management is explicit about what the company’s culture and values are – and that this understanding is clear across the organisation. For instance, a lot of organisations say ‘we put the customer first,’ without explaining what this means in practice. Does it mean always doing what the customer wants, no matter what? Or does it mean having the customers’ best interests in mind? Or, perhaps, saying no to the customer if they are asking for something that is not appropriate?

The reality of what it means to live up to an organisation’s stated values is a lot harder than it first appears and dissemination of corporate culture takes a lot of work. Throughout any organisation, culturally there is nothing worse than when an individual is allowed to behave badly because they are a high-performer. Senior leadership and management must be clear on what is and is not tolerable, and this must be upheld even if the individual’s performance is exceptional.

What is the relationship between corporate culture and the conversation around gender diversity?

There is a relationship, but it is hard to argue that it amounts to causation. I would add that it is all about diversity, not just gender, because generally, organisations that have diversity are inclusive of people who are different in terms of gender, ethnicity, background, language, education and so on.

Some organisations are good at not only bringing in diverse people, but also giving them a voice. By doing so, they are enabling individuals to be themselves and experience ‘psychological safety’, a place where they can express their full selves and be truthful. Such organisations are generally clear on what their values are. Supporting diversity can mean that if organisational culture starts to slip –perhaps when there is too much ‘group think’, or if people make assumptions – people are generally better at calling it out. A diverse group of people asks more questions, challenges each other in a good way, and has more discussions.

Many companies are having to shift from an old-style corporate culture to a new, more inclusive one. What is involved in this process?

Many of the organisations that we work with have had to look at their culture due to a scandal or specific cultural breakdowns. Many also are taking culture more seriously, not because they have experienced specific issues but because they realise that a healthy culture leads to better outcomes for clients, employees and shareholders. Companies are beginning to realise that they must take care of culture on an ongoing and active basis. It’s like tending a garden: you can’t just plant the seeds and leave them to grow; you have to look after them.

There is a variety of things organisations need to consider when changing. Have we been explicit in our aims? Are we clear on what we value and how we expect our employees to behave? A lot of organisations in the past have made assumptions that these points were clear, when in fact they were not. A great way to test this is to survey a group of employees and clients and ask, ‘what do we stand for?’ and ‘what are our core values?’ If the responses are very different from one another, then the organisation is not clear on culture and expectations.

Training middle management is something more large organisations are realising they need to do. The tone from the top can be great, but is middle management aligned with that tone? This is vital because, for the average employee, it’s not the tone from the top that matters so much as the tone much closer to home. They will observe the level above, or two levels above, asking ‘how do they act, how do they behave and what do they believe’? They do this because the actions of these people will impact them in their day-to-day job far more than those of the CEO.

Organisations must constantly and proactively manage culture. It’s not a one-time thing; it evolves. As the world around us changes – as customers change and as a business changes – we adopt new technologies, for example, helping more employees work from home. It’s changes such as these that shift organisational culture, and they need to be managed.

If good corporate culture is important to an individual, what should they look for when joining an organisation?

There are two different approaches to this. They should certainly start by taking a look at the mission statement of the company, trying to get a feel for its values. Then they can dive beneath that and start probing the facts. For instance, they could ask about diversity and inclusion statistics. How diverse is the senior leadership team? How diverse is the team that they will be joining? Has that firm made progress over the last few years? Have targets or stated goals around diversity and inclusion been met?

They should also ask about turnover in the team that they are going to join. How long have people typically been on a team, and what is its rate of turnover? A team composed of people who have been there for a long time tells you that it’s a positive place to work. But the presence of relative newcomers indicates that it welcomes new blood and different ways of thinking about and doing things.

Individuals should also try to speak to people who would be their peers in the role, or people who will be on their team. Ask specific questions around the culture such as: ‘What behaviours are rewarded in this organisation?’ ‘What behaviours are frowned upon?’ ‘How does the organisation react when someone makes a mistake or an error?’ ‘Do you “shoot the messenger”?’ ‘Is self-identification, speaking up or voicing a dissenting opinion welcomed or frowned upon?’ Answers to these types of questions can tell you a lot about corporate culture.

How can we, as employees, help bring about a positive corporate culture?

Anyone who is in a management role obviously has more influence and power. But at every level of the organisation, it is essential to have an understanding of what the firm stands for, to ensure that we are all living up to those values every day, and to see that the decisions and actions that we take are in line with those values.

When you are being asked to do something that goes against the organisation’s stated values, you should raise those issues and speak out. Do not be afraid of calling out conflicts or issues that are not in line with the culture. At the same time, I think there has to be a culture that allows people to learn from their mistakes.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee.

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