Culture: It’s What Happens When the President is Away

Culture.  It’s a word that is thrown around often.  We hear it in the boardroom, read about it in business journals, study it in college.  All in an effort to try and figure out how to create a better one for our organization.

If you ask random people how they would define culture, you would probably get very different answers.  Some might try to explain it with an organizational chart.  Others may talk about incentives, employee engagement practices, volunteer programs, or an employee handbook.

I define it as this: culture is what happens when the President is not around.  It’s how employees interact with each other when they don’t feel like they’re being watched.  It’s reflected in decisions being made and values being practiced when the culture-police aren’t there to enforce them.

A few years ago I had gone on vacation.  When I returned, I walked into one of our departments to find an array of large movie posters placed on a prominent wall in the building. The department that had put the posters up did so to because they felt it represented their personalities well.

I knew immediately that the posters had to come down.  One reason is that we often provide tours of our building to customers and to our partners and I knew that the posters just weren’t appropriate.

I spoke with each of my operations leaders individually and asked them what they thought.  While the leader of this department that had put the posters up liked them, the others told me they knew when I returned the posters were coming down.

I wasn’t upset, but I wanted to know why the other leaders hadn’t communicated this to their colleague.  I told them that, had I been him, I would have been disappointed that they had not shared their thoughts and left me out to dry.  The posters were not a big deal to me.  The big deal was that I didn’t see leaders looking out for each other.  In this particular instance, they were waiting for me to return so that I would make an uncomfortable decision.

Let me interject by saying that these guys, and the entire leadership team at SEI, do a great job.  For every teachable moment, there are far more moments where they shine.  I can leave, because I know that the SEI Way of doing things is practiced in my absence; I hear it from our employees and from our customers all the time.  I know that our customers still receive exceptional service. I know that Vision talks and Quarterly 5/15s are being done.  I know that decisions are being made based on our Four Core Objectives.

At Service Express, we have great processes, procedures, incentives and programs that contribute to our culture, but they don’t define our culture if we don’t live them all the time.  Our culture is defined by how we act when we believe that we aren’t under the microscope.  Culture is not just practiced when it’s convenient to do so, but also when it’s more convenient not to.

How do you define culture?  How can you differentiate yourself with your culture?