Who actually owns your company culture?

You want to really know about the culture of a company? Just ask any executive this simple question: who actually owns your company culture? The way they answer it will tell you everything you need to know about their management style and about the health of that company’s workforce.

Option 1: “I DO!
We all know this guy. He’s usually the founder or owner of the business who feels personally responsible for the company’s growth and trajectory. This person typically believes in their own cult of personality beyond anything else and believes that the business couldn’t possibly succeed without them. This is more often than not a company culture that’s ruled by fear of that individual OR a company that has no personality of its own. If they answer this way, you probably don’t want to work there. This is the Michael Scott-run culture.

Option 2: “HR does
While far more self-aware than Option 1, this exec most likely is completely unaware of the culture of their company. The type is usually shockingly disconnected from the goings on in an organization and is typically out of touch with how the average employee thinks and feels. This organization could be intensely healthy with a vibrant culture, or it could be in the death throws of a brain drain. Either way, if a leader doesn’t know the state of the culture and thinks it’s summed up by the benefits program, it’s a caution sign to say the least. There’s hope for this company, but the culture would benefit tremendously by being more thoroughly defined. This is the Toby culture.

Option 3: “The party planning committee does
This sounds like a good answer. The company has clearly done enough homework to delegate some of its employee relations to its team members, but employees that are assigned authority to handle 4 parties a year are not the people you necessarily want making decisions for your company culture. And that’s no knock on them. These people usually care a great deal, but company culture shouldn’t be dictated by the type of beer or cake that gets served at a work function. The real issue is that a party planning committee never controls culture. At best, they merely reflect it. This is the Angela culture.

Option 4: “Steve and Jerry do
Run. As fast as you can. This is most likely a toxic work environment where there is little to no discipline and the managers fear the employees. It’s not that this company doesn’t have a culture. It does. And it is most likely riddled with back stabbing and power brokering by the employees who have been there the longest. These types of companies are culturally ruled with an iron fist by an oligarchy who decides who’s in and who’s not. Employees will refer to these people as “important” even though their job title could be anything from executive assistant to head of sales. And if you happen to cross these people? You’re out. They will bide their time until they can either get you fired or make you miserable. Run from a place like this. This is the Dwight culture.

Option 5: “No one does
I’ve worked at this place, and it’s not fun. It’s usually the kind of company that people only stay in their jobs for 18-24 months before moving on. There are a couple old timers who’ve never felt like leaving, but it’s not a culture than anyone enjoys working in. It’s passionless and completely disconnected from any kind of purpose. If no one feels responsibility for the culture getting better, then it never will. This is the Stanley culture.

Option 6: “Everyone does
Bingo. This is actually one of the most difficult statements for a leader to say and to genuinely mean. A great company culture is a social contract that everyone buys into – where those with social authority willingly lay it down for the good of others, and where accountability is the ultimate sign of shared experience. Getting to this answer takes an insane amount of work over time to both write down and craft what that culture means AND to live it out on a daily basis. And it requires that leadership always be viewed as working for the employees rather than employees working for leadership. Without servant leadership, this doesn’t happen. But most importantly, this company is clearly purpose-driven. This is a business and a culture that is well acquainted with what it is trying to achieve, and its leaders are making sure that people know it. You definitely want to work here. You will be challenged but you will love it.

As a leader, be honest with yourself: how would you answer? Even if you’re Options 1-5, there’s always hope. You can always start building the culture you want today. The first step? Realizing you have to let go of owning it yourself AND you have to take the necessary steps to serve your people and hold them accountable for their actions. Do that, and good things will undoubtedly follow.