I’ve thought more about culture since I was accepted as a member of the Patient Family Advisory Council (PFAC) at the City of Hope than I have in my entire life. That’s probably because supporting the City of Hope’s culture is important to me. An important part of what we do on the PFAC. Because culture is so important in every aspect of our lives, I think we should start with an awareness of what it is.
Sociologically, culture can be understood as the “languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities and memories developed by members of all social groups that make their social environments meaningful.” That’s a lot, but it captures the comprehensive nature of what culture is really all about. At least, within that context.
Organizationally, the definition is a bit different. Essentially, it is “the proper way to behave within an organization.” It consists of the shared beliefs and values established by the organization’s leaders. These beliefs and values are reinforced and then communicated through various methods, not the least of which is by example. Ultimately, shaping employee perceptions, behaviors, and understanding.
There is a wrought iron gate at the City of Hope that defines what the organization is all about beyond what anyone might say. It reads, “There is no profit in curing the body if in the process we destroy the soul.”
The Way Things Are Done Around Here…
These are not just words on a gate. It is the ethos of the entire enterprise. Something that is guarded and cherished, as well it should be. Decisions are made based upon those words. Treatments are designed and executed. Relationships are built. Values like compassion, empathy, kindness, and care are elevated and embraced.
But culture is not exclusive to organizations like the City of Hope. All organizations, including family units, demonstrate their culture whether its existence is recognized or not. It is the way we do things around here. What we believe in. What’s important to us. How we would like to be recognized. And, knowingly or unknowingly, it influences every aspect of our social and organizational lives. Especially, concerning small business ownership or operation.
People are drawn to a business because of the culture they experience—or perceive,—whether as clients, associates, or potential purchasers.
Individuals with entrepreneurial aspirations may tell you they are buying brick and mortar when they go to purchase a business. Projections of revenue and expense. But what they are really drawn to (Or, repelled by…) is the organizational culture that defines that business. The traits and characteristics that make the business what it is. The outward manifestation of philosophy and beliefs that define action and direction.
People Like Us…
Culture says people like us, who believe what we believe, do things like this. We do things like this regardless of whether leadership is present or not. Regardless of who might be watching. We do that because what we believe determines who we are and what we do.
Realistically, culture develops as a direct reflection of the owner’s personality and belief system. Their character and values. More than anything else, it is a manifestation of their actions. Especially, concerning how they treat their employees and clients. Perhaps, more importantly, it is a manifestation of how their employees and associates treat clients and each other when the owner is off-site.
Like the air around us, it exists whether or not you believe in it. Even the absence of culture is a direct reflection of the culture that exists within a family or a business. You can either accept it and then try to form and manage it. Or you can ignore that responsibility and allow someone else within the organization to define it.
Culture is at its best when it guides everyone to pursue the most inclusive and expansive vision of success. What the Japanese refer to as Kaizen: continuous improvement including everyone.
To successfully run a business, you must recognize the important role culture plays within the organization as well as the critical role culture plays in the perception of the business. But to do that, you must become aware of its existence and accept it. Awareness and recognition are critical if you ever expect to build, modify, or change that culture.
Where Culture and Success Potentially Collide
Unfortunately, there is a problem. A real problem. And that problem is human nature! Our very existence is dependent upon an intricate and complicated fabric of habits, patterns, and assumptions. Many of which we are not even aware exist. Change. Any change, even the smallest, will almost always be accompanied by an inordinate amount of discomfort.
Breaking habits… Embracing new and different behaviors is difficult. Painful. And it is at this intersection existing culture and the pursuit of success collide.
I can speak to this phenomenon definitively because I’ve witnessed it countless times. A small business owner wishes to move or expand. The most obvious way to accomplish that is to look at an existing business. A business that does what you do or would like to do.
You have the “what.” You know what to do because you’ve been doing it, either for someone else or for yourself. If you don’t have the “what,” you hopefully plan to harvest the required knowledge somehow. You explore adjoining neighborhoods to find a “where,” looking for a business that calls to you through its curb appeal and potential. You visit the business in an attempt to get a sense of the “who” and the “how.”
Two things are likely to become immediately clear. The business you are looking at is everything you could hope for. It works! Everyone knows what to do, how to do it, and they all do it well. There are policies and processes in place. A framework. A foundation. No chaos and no apparent crises. You look at the numbers, but it’s the operations—and their potential—that attracts you. Especially, if they go beyond what you have created.
Or you see the could be based upon the what if…
Could Be and What If…
If you are already an existing business and are unaware of your culture, you may be courting disaster if you plan to bring that culture with you. Especially, if you are bringing people with you and there is a marked difference between your culture and the one you may be inheriting. Problems occur when cultures clash. And, that clash is all but guaranteed because virtually everyone involved has some preconceived notion of what that business is supposed to be all about!
If part of your rationale for purchasing a business is the existing culture: the who, how, what, and why of the way things are getting done, you must be especially vigilant. Respectful. Particularly, if that culture is everything yours is not. Embracing a new culture is difficult. Exhausting. It takes time and effort. Ensuring everyone is on board is critical and that includes you. You must demonstrate by example that these new policies and procedures, values and beliefs, are critical. Essential, in fact.
The problem is the ease with which you can find yourself sliding backward, embracing old patterns. Old ways. If the goal is to be better, everything you do must be facing in that direction. Embracing that outcome. Otherwise, all you may be doing is replicating a flawed culture that is not fully focused on a level of inclusive success that may have eluded you in the past.
Whether focused on business, family, or friends, culture matters. For it to matter, it has to matter to you!