news: Your Culture is Your Brand: Building a Strong Culture (part 1)
September 24, 2020

Your Culture is Your Brand: Building a Strong Culture (part 1)

This article is the first in a two-part introductory series on the relationship between culture and brand. This month, we discuss the importance of culture and how to hone it. Next month, we’ll show you how to leverage it in your brand.


As Peter Drucker, an architect of modern management, once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Culture, after all, is instrumental to the long-term success and performance of an organization. Some think of it as a function of HR or what happens on the periphery of real work, but culture is much more than team movie nights and birthday celebrations. Culture is the code that runs organizations and is the key to the successful execution of their strategies. It’s central to the experience they offer all stakeholders. Beyond that, if organizations aspire to establish a brand that’s authentic to the core – and great brands are – it’s where their brand is born.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines organizational culture as, “The ensemble of beliefs, assumptions, values, norms, artifacts, symbols, actions, and language patterns shared by all members of an organization.” Put simply, culture shapes behaviour and decision-making in an organization, and defines what is and is not appropriate behaviour.

By seeking to hone and harness your culture, you are in effect engineering the experience all stakeholders have with your organization. You are defining how you will work, collaborate, communicate, overcome challenges, learn, and grow. A strong strategy is not enough on its own; if you are working to create a winning organization, your strategy will define the direction, but your culture will determine how successfully it is executed.


Building a strong culture

Every organization has a culture, which can be nurtured purposefully or left to grow organically. If you don’t take charge and work to shape it to suit your objectives, though, it’ll grow all on its own – for better or worse. As Ben Horowitz says, “Methodically set your culture, [or] two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.” Without direction, the majority rule will shape your culture. Don’t let it grow wild.

Building a strong culture takes daily attention. In fact, as a leader, every interaction you have, every action you take, and every word that leaves your mouth will impact your culture. Equally important is the fact that, regardless of how much effort you put into shaping it, you will never have full control over that culture, either. It’s something that is co-created by your team every day, and over time it builds and solidifies.

So how do you go about building a strong culture? An excellent place to start is to ask yourself and your team four questions:

  • How do we want to change the world? (Even a small change has an impact.)
  • How do we want to treat each other? (Consider both what is acceptable and what is not.)
  • What should our customers and partners expect of us? (Again consider what is and is not acceptable.)
  • What kind of experience do we want to create, for all stakeholders?


A culture should be a bit aspirational – something your organization aims for on a daily basis, to make a better “you”. As a team, you will reach for and often attain the high bar set, but that doesn’t mean it should be easy. So, in asking the above questions, think about who your organization aspires to be, and not necessarily who it currently is.

Take those answers, utilize them in designing a system of values that set a standard, and make a clear path regarding how to live up to it. Effective values capture what an organization believes in, what it prioritizes, and the behaviours it expects its people to exhibit.


An example of workplace culture

At WJ, we have six values:

  • Do the right thing.
  • Live without ego.
  • Be yourself and celebrate differences.
  • Make clients feel they are the only one.
  • Make it work today and make it better for tomorrow.
  • Become better every day.

We designed these values to go beyond single-word statements, like integrity because we want our team to live them daily. Setting the values as active – even starting each one with a verb – makes it much easier for our team to stay true to them.

For example, as an employee of WJ sitting in a client meeting, should you answer an email on your phone from another client? Well, would that make the client in front of you feel like the only one? No. If a client requests a certain meeting time, do you decline and say, “Sorry, my day is packed with other client meetings?” No. Do not tie it to other clients, because that will make the next client feel they are not as important, which is not the case. Expected behaviour becomes clear when values are clear.


The role of values in building culture

The values you design can be thought of as behaviour guidelines that hold for all situations – expected and unexpected, familiar and unfamiliar. There are many styles and approaches to writing value statements, but what’s vital is that they authentically fit the organization, outline its aspirations, and guide its behaviour from moment to moment.

The next step is to use those values as a foundation for building a strong, effective culture.

There are two main drivers behind culture: defined elements, which you have direct control over, and organic ones, which you can influence but will develop on their own.

Defined and organic drivers:

  • Defined drivers: Values, hiring, celebrated behaviours, and stories from past
  • Organic drivers: Mindset, oral history, patterns of behaviour, beliefs, pull towards stability or change, and interpersonal dynamics

Given those drivers, how can leaders influence culture? Here are six tactics to help you manifest one that is ideal for you:

  • Honour employees who exemplify the values: Each week, celebrate examples of people living the values. A few examples of how to do this include highlighting people during a weekly team meeting (virtual or in-person), in a weekly internal email, or sharing on an intranet, among others. Remember these examples, as these are the source of cultural stories.
  • Tie rewards to values: Create a reward system tied to your values. It could be a gift card, a one-on-one lunch with a leader, or anything else the team appreciates.
  • Include values in performance management: Coach leaders to praise employees who live the values. Discuss how fully a person lives the values during performance reviews and, where possible, include performance metrics that relate to them.
  • Live it yourself: Leaders must take responsibility for culture-building – be deliberate in your actions and purposeful with your words.
  • Tell culture stories: Think about what stories from your organization’s past exemplify your values and tell them to new staff. If your values are like your ethical principles, the stories you tell are your scripture.
  • Hire for culture: Treat cultural fit as a key deciding factor in all hiring decisions.

building strong culture - two men playing life-size chess

Now, culture is far more complicated to shape than the above list would imply, but those points are a great place to start. What is critical is that desired behaviour is clear and that the team is inspired to reflect on the values daily, or even from moment to moment. If your values are clear and people live them fully, anyone acting out of alignment with them will feel uncomfortable because they will be going against the group. Positive pressure is the foundation of a strong, effective culture.


Read Part 2, where we share our philosophy on the connection between brand and culture and give some tools to help you align the two.