The Great Misunderstanding Of Corporate Culture

Tina Filipski Contact PageWhat do the greatest workplaces have in common? Over the past six years that PPB has recognized some of our industry’s finest based on employee nominations, I’ve thought about that quite a bit. I’ve seen companies struggle with retention only to lose their best people, and others add a bunch of “fun” extras that don’t seem to make a real difference in the employees’ work experience. Then I’ve seen other companies that do it so right. A great workplace sprouts from the right company culture, but how do you create it?

Enter Kathy Finnerty Thomas, president of Stowebridge Promotion Group, and a speaker, writer and trainer on making companies memorable. In a recent article for PPB, she brilliantly hit the nail on the head in regard to creating company culture. She says it is as though “executives have read the title but not the book.” In other words, “they have embraced the headline but didn’t read the fine print,” she says. Rather than try to relate Kathy’s insightful teachings on the topic, let me share her words with you.

“Nap rooms, Ping Pong, unlimited vacation, beer Fridays, bring-your-dog-to-work days, coffee stations, green belts and on-site yoga during the work day. Some companies offer these perks and they have led to a misguided understanding of company culture and how to create it. In some cases companies also have a great culture, but in many cases it is just window dressing.

“It is no wonder some executives are confused when they have done all of these things and invested in creative, state-of-the-art offices, but the grand promises of great corporate culture haven't materialized.

“Culture is the heart and soul of a company, not how it is dressed.

“Great corporate culture is the key differentiator between amazing companies with staying power and ordinary companies, especially in this world where product and service differentiation often last only a few weeks or months. It is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage companies have. Nearly every company featured on PPB’s Greatest Companies To Work For list, and others, cite culture as their key focus and secret to success.

“Corporate culture is not a perk or an event or a party or a dress code. It is more than just a statement on a website. And it is so much more than the great buzz phrase it has become in business today. Millennials will tell you it is very important in their job search and determines whether they will stay with a company.

“Perks are merely artifacts of culture, they are not culture. The biggest misunderstanding is that culture is external. It’s not—it’s internal. It is the operating system of the company. Great culture guides what is acceptable and unacceptable in how employees interact with each other and with customers. It is the navigation system that guides a company through good times and difficult times in making decisions and determining right from wrong.

“Every company has a company culture whether you recognize it or not. Most cultures are accidental, created by the strongest personalities in any group. They develop over time. There can also be different cultures from group to group in larger companies. Corporate culture is made up of how a company operates, how a team works together and how the leaders lead. It is also a reflection of how you treat your customers, what they remember about you and what they say about you. Culture can develop on its own or it can be driven and nurtured by an organization. The best cultures are those that are explicitly driven by a shared vision and values across the organization. Without guidance, culture will just develop organically based on how employees and leaders behave.

“Is your company culture a great one or a poor one? While perks are great, if people do not work together for the collective good of the company and its customers, if the president is belittling and disrespectful to employees or if employees are allowed to get away with workplace bullying, then you have a company culture that makes it very difficult to serve the customer and retain your top talent. These are examples of company culture, but not the type that drives companies to amazing performance.

“Culture is not an HR function—it’s everybody’s job. The best culture is one that is led from the top down but includes everyone in its delivery and is lived by the whole organization. Great culture is a function of all the leaders as well as the players on the team (and everybody is on the same team). It is not a Friday afternoon thing—it is every waking moment in an organization.

“When you work in an organization that cares about developing and cultivating an amazing culture, you feel it as soon as you walk in the building. It is alive in the way employees interact with each other and with customers. It is especially apparent in how leaders treat people. And it’s not the leader who treats some employees well—such as the salespeople—but ignores or is condescending to employees in other departments or lower-level employees. That is an indicator of a poor culture.

“In my company, creating, fostering and cultivating a great culture is the most important part of my job. It is the true differentiator between awesome companies and mediocre companies, between companies that survive in the long run and those that fade away.

“So do I disagree with cool offices, nap rooms, beer Fridays and green belts? Absolutely not. But great culture can exist in a warehouse without windows because it is not about perks. It’s about human interaction starting at the top.

“At our office, we often celebrate with food events. I love to surprise our staff by making banana-split pancakes and having breakfast ready when the production staff comes in. One person joked that we are the only promotional products company with a Zagat rating. I love it, but perks never replace respect, teamwork, leadership and the common goal to delight the customer.”

Connect with Kathy on LinkedIn or at to learn more about this fascinating topic and see this year’s PPB Greatest Companies To Work For.

filed under june-2016 | ppb
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Comments (1)
Diane Scherpereel, NAU
September 30, 2016

This is an excellent article, Kathy! I look forward to you sharing with our MBA class in a couple weeks!

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