The Case For Culture: The Difference Between “Doing Good” and “Doing Great”

Dean Lyons understands the power culture has

During his keynote speech at the 2010 GMAC Industry Conference (the key point starts at 34:00 but I encourage watching the whole thing), Dean Rich Lyons proposed that the firms we respect and the ones we think of first are “Strong Culture” firms. These “Strong Culture” firms define and apply their organization’s norms and values very deliberately so that the firm’s internal and external processes are designed to advance the culture in order to support the overall strategy. What this means is that companies seek applicants and hire new employees who understand the organization’s culture and embrace it. This impacts how they design products and how they conduct themselves with their coworkers and customers so that in every exchange and every end user experience that company’s culture is felt and understood. This has a very distinguishing effect and is a large part of why these “Strong Culture” firms are so respected and memorable, and while all firms have a culture Dean Lyons points out that the difference rests in where a firm stands on the spectrum between deliberate and de facto.

“Strong Culture” firms like Apple and Google exemplify the deliberate end of the scale where culture is used as a competitive advantage. At a conference in February, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook placed culture as the foundation for his company’s success and its ability to attract top talent. Google’s deliberate culture based decisions are visible in their recruiting methods, their management hierarchy and even how they physically organize their office space. In both cases these companies go beyond the base de facto level of culture and instead embrace it making it work for them. While there are other factors that certainly contribute to the success of these firms both Apple and Google openly admit the important role culture plays in their performance in the office and in the market.

Two “Strong Culture” firms

Apple and Google aren’t outliers; there is growing recognition of culture’s role in a firm’s success.  At a recent speaking engagement George Zimmer, former head of The Men’s Warehouse, stressed the value in understanding how your culture applies in every decision you make.

While it’s true that culture, simply put, is a set of norms and values for a firm it can also serve as a manifestation of that firm’s mission statement. To that end it acts as an impetus for employees to focus the efforts of the firm and lead the company in a way that forwards the mission better than any HR meeting or corporate memo.

It’s also worth mentioning that culture is more than just branding. Branding is a front put up by firms that may or may not reflect that organization’s true self. Culture goes to the heart of the firm and is present inside and out. What the consumer sees and what the employee sees are one and the same, this is important for building trust and productive dialogue between all individuals at every level.

The value of culture extends well past the corporate world, and nowhere is that more visible than in education. UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business is one example. Haas has eloquently distilled its culture into four defining principles:

Question The Status Quo

Confidence Without Attitude

Students Always

Beyond Yourself

In the same way that firms utilize culture Haas is taking a similar course of action. It very deliberately ties its principles into its curriculum and lectures. In addition to academics the administration works to ensure that culture plays an important part in admissions along with day-to-day decision-making. This use of culture does two very important things, it distinguishes Haas from other schools, but more than that it distinguishes its graduates from the rest of the workforce.

Haas leads through innovation and culture

Haas uses culture to its advantage. Firms from across the world are recruiting more often from the school because Haas graduates possess more than just a great business skillset; they also demonstrate the norms and values companies are looking for – employees who exhibit confidence without attitude, question the status quo, possess a willingness to learn from and teach others, and have the desire to go beyond themselves. The fact of the matter is that Haas’ culture is helping produce the kind of applicants the business world needs, “Path-Bending Leaders” as Dean Lyons puts it.

Haas’ blending of culture with academics has a profound effect. It uses award-winning faculty to give students the tools they require to succeed in their field of study. Using culture it goes a step further in the process by giving students a certain level of finesse when they use those tools. The application of culture to academics is akin to the difference between a journeyman and a master craftsman. A journeyman can repair or build a table, but a master craftsman can improve upon that table’s design or even build a more elegant functional one. In both cases the same tools are used, but the master craftsman possess certain outside traits that allow for the creation of a superior product.

This is why culture draws in recruiters, they know they can go to a lot of schools and get students who understand the material but they choose Haas because they know they can get students who apply their knowledge in a very distinct way. This makes those students extremely competitive applicants who in some cases are the only ones with the right norms and values that recruiters are looking for.

Culture is a valuable resource but it can’t be forced. Those who use it must look within themselves and their mission statements to understand what is truly important to them and what is necessary to meet their goals. In Haas’ case it never decided that its defining principles should be the ones that sound the best to recruiters but instead codified the norms and values that have always been important to the school.

By defining its principles Haas redefines the business graduate

I’ll admit that the first time I heard of the school’s defining principles I was skeptical. The colligate world is flooded with slogans and battle cries, occasionally inspirational but always fluff. The more I observed the school’s culture, its application to the business world and how it serves as a strong foundation for present and future success, the more I began to appreciate it. I understand that when I walk into an interview or when I talk about the school I have my culture behind me and that has a very powerful impact.

So go ahead and define yourself, understand the culture that shapes you. Not only will that set you apart as an individual it will also help you maintain your focus and ultimately find success in whatever it is that you choose to do.

This article is the first article in a five part series that focuses on culture and the Haas School’s Four Defining Principles.

Special thanks to Katherine Mitchell, the new Haas Culture-Building consultant, for her input.

Interested in talking about Haas culture? Katherine and I will be at the FIFO@Haas Café on Tuesday, August 28, 9:30-10:30 AM, and Wednesday, September 26, 11:00-12:00 PM hosting a casual and collaborative discussion on the subject.

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