Defining Corporate Culture Matters

Maybe Even More Than You Realize

“I want to write a book on corporate culture,” said my friend Wells Burke, founder of Rocket Partners.

Wells and I first met in 2007 at an early morning ATDC Bible study. We spent a year getting together every week to read through the Bible and discuss how it applied to our lives. That’s how we really got to know each other.

Since then, he married Kate, had three children, built two companies, sold one, worked for the acquirer, almost died, came back to the Bible study, became a disciple of Christ, joined a church, worked as an Entrepreneur in Residence at ATDC, left the Bible study, and started a new company. A real entrepreneur!

There Are No Books

I love Wells. He is intelligent, thoughtful, loving, and passionate about what he does. And now he wants to write a book.

“What? You? Why?” I asked.

“Everybody talks about the importance of corporate culture. But I can’t find anywhere how to practically apply it in the day to day workings of my company,” he explained.

“I am going to figure this out and write about it. If I am wrestling with this problem as I grow my company, I bet other entrepreneurs are struggling with this, too,” he said.

“I thought corporate culture was applied in a company simply by how the founder behaves,” I said.

Deciding to be Intentional

“I agree, but there has to be more. I believe you have to be intentional. There must be a plan and methods which are employed. This will ensure the culture is reinforced every day as the company grows,” he explained.

“That sounds right. In fact, I’ve heard Kyle Porter of SalesLoft talk about this. Kyle really believes in getting culture right. Every time he gets in front of employees and customers, he talks culture. He wants people to know who SalesLofters are and what they value,” I said.

“That’s a good way to apply culture. Talk about it. But there must be other ways. When I search the web on this topic, I don’t find a whole lot. There is plenty written on the importance of a strong and well-defined culture but very little on how to practically apply it every day,” he said.

“Now you have me thinking about it,” I said. “Kyle also has thought a lot about this as part of the interview process for new candidates. He has specific interview questions focused on culture. I don’t know anybody else who does this.”

“That’s a great idea on how to be intentional,” he responded.

Seed of a Good Idea

Wells is onto something. He’s a smart guy and very sensitive to the market he serves. More importantly, he is very sensitive to his community. And his community is fast-growth startup entrepreneurs. Wells gets it. He gets them.

As Wells does his research, maybe I can convince him to share it with all of us. I know we will all benefit. As a Georgia Tech engineer and serial software entrepreneur, Wells will give us practical ways to apply corporate culture in the daily, routine activities of our businesses.

Please share with Wells and the rest of our readers how you apply culture in your company. I know you do it. Take the time to share your ideas and experience in the comments section of this blog post.

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8 thoughts on “Defining Corporate Culture Matters

  1. Charlie, Wells, we’ve approached this consciously, and in many ways.
    In job descriptions, we say that humility, admitting mistakes, and speaking up are required. Every job description includes “respecting our users’ life experiences”, which means both police officers and ex-offenders, among others, parties often considered on “opposite sides”.
    We talk about our values in interviews, telling stories of things that have happened and how we responded in those situations, what “our” right thing to do is.
    When we have had to deal with personnel issues, we talk about behaviors or incidents within the framework of our values.
    We call out when people behave in line with our culture when it goes against common corporate culture (praise the messenger).
    When we have had very difficult trade-offs to make, we have discussed those in the context of our culture, particularly when it comes to how our customers experience us.
    Culture impacts what counts as an “allowable expense”.
    We discussed and decided to stop pursuing an investor because their values and ours were not aligned.
    We have had difficult ethical situations with competitors and partners and used the frame of our culture to decide how to behave. “We want to do what is legal, and we want to do what is right.”
    We consciously balance compassion for a person’s in-the-moment situation, and accountability for performance over the medium and long term.
    One of our employees also serves as company chaplain. Prisons, jails and police departments have chaplains, just as hospitals do, so that’s where we borrowed the idea from. You could consider a company chaplain as an in-house EAP, but someone who knows you as a person (and who is required to keep conversations confidential.) Recently, our chaplain said a few words at a graveside, and is helping a family through a difficult time.
    As my co-founder says, “If we aren’t in the office creating culture, someone else will do it for us.”

    • This will help many of my readers. Thanks for taking the time to write this to all of us, like Wells, who are struggling with how to implement and reinforce our corporate culture.

  2. Charlie,

    Great post and I, as well, would love to see more on the practical application of culture. You asked us to share so this is what I have tried to do consistently (albeit in my case more would be better).

    1. Make Employees THE Priority ~ The right culture and a business that spends time on it regularly is a necessity in today’s marketplace, especially with more and more of the workforce being millenials, but if the employees don’t feel valued then they won’t buy into your culture. I believe to begin creating the right culture for your business you have to start by answering the question, “What type of experience does my business provide its employees?”

    2. Culture In The DNA Of The Business ~ Is the type of culture that you want to have at your company within your business? Does your Mission Statement, Purpose Statement and Core Values speak to your culture, or do they just sound good? Is the Vision of the founder or leadership known among all the staff of is it reserved for the employees that have been dubbed the “rising stars”? This is a mistake I have made in the past by only bringing a select few into the fold of company vision and direction. My motives weren’t to exclude anyone but rather to make employees that I felt had the most potential feel more important with hopes they would get even more motivated. I have since changed and make it a point to talk about our DNA to every employee I encounter. Culture is a way of life that is developed over time and learned through experiences among a community of like minded individuals. Before King David’s champions were known as the fiercest fighting force in all the land they were kids tending sheep and doing what they were asked to do.

    3. Champion Culture ~ One of my favorite quotes of all time “Cogito Ergo Sum”. I like the Latin because it begs the question and I get to talk about what it means to me and how it has impacted my life. Your employees must know what the leader/owner is all about. How much time do you spend on personally developing the culture that you want to live out in your own life? There is a lot of talk about how to get your customers to become raving fans and likely a multitude of company initiatives and dollars spent in the same bucket, but how much action, money and talk is devoted to developing Raving Employees? You hire like yourself, you attract what you are and if you’re wondering what is important to your business just look at where you spend your money.

    That’s it for now I’ve rambled on enough!

    • You ask a really interesting question in your first point. “What type of experience does my business provide its employees?” This is the litmus test of a culture. If you are having trouble defining your culture, ask your employees to define it based on their experience. They’ll know!