Top 5+ key elements in shaping company culture

Top 5+ key elements in shaping company culture

Successful change management involves the employees

Many leaders spend a lot of time talking about company culture: What does it take to create the right kind of culture? How can you maintain that culture? How to build an organization that is fit for the future? But still many organizations treat the creation, maintenance, and periodic updating of their cultures in a cavalier manner.

There’s an old joke about a CEO who attended a presentation on change management and corporate culture and then asked his head of HR to:

Get me one of those things

Of course it sounds ludicrous – but like most jokes, this story is based in truth.

Most senior managers struggle with culture because it’s so difficult to define. Even less tangible than a “soft” concept, culture is more like a cloud: You know it’s there, but it’s nearly impossible to grasp.

Leaders however can influence those behaviors in several ways – and by so doing shape the culture of their firms. Whether you are a CEO or a department manager, here are three steps that you can take:

#1 – Convey your vision of a winning culture

If you want to be more than just the caretaker of an existing culture, then you need to define your aspirations:

  • What will be different, and how will it make a difference for the success of your organization?
  • More specifically what are the most critical behaviors that will characterize the culture you want to create?

For example, Jack Welch used the mantra of “speed, simplicity, and self-confidence” as the beacon for his transformation of GE’s culture in the 1990’s – in stark contrast to the company’s analytical, bureaucratic, and hierarchical culture at the time. This aspirational vision sparked dialogue at every level of the company about what people needed to do to make GE successful – and to be personally successful at GE.

#2 – Changing employees old habits, speak it out

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop is faced with a lot of challenges – changing old habits among employees are just one of them. In a talk to employees, he asked a question that many were probably afraid to answer truthfully, given how Nokia is struggling to combat the iPhone. When he asks how many people in the crowd use an iPhone or Android device, few hands go up:

That upsets me-not because some of you are using iPhones, but because only a small number of people are using iPhones. I’d rather people have the intellectual curiosity to understand what we’re up against.

#3 – Demonstrate how new cultural behaviors can advance the business

Nothing reinforces new behaviors more than success. So once you define these behaviors, work with your team to apply them to a specific project that might need to be accelerated or improved. To do this, challenge your team to achieve a specific stretch goal in a short period of time, while explicitly trying to bring the new culture to life.

#4 – Stories

Corporate stories typically exemplify company values, and capture dramatically the exploits of employees who personify these values in action. Stories allow employees to learn about what is expected of them and better understand what the business stands for.

#5 – Put teeth into the new culture by integrating it into HR processes

People tend to do what’s measured and rewarded. So a third step for building a new culture is to use the desired behaviors as criteria for hiring, promoting, rewarding, and developing people. The real turning point for GE’s transformation came when Jack Welch publicly announced to his senior managers that he had fired two business leaders for not demonstrating the new behaviors of the company – despite having achieved exceptional financial results. This made it very clear that the culture was not just a soft concept – instead, it had tangible outcomes and consequences.

Shaping a corporate culture is one of the most difficult challenges for a leader. Do remember the famous words of Peter Drucker: Culture eats strategy for breakfast.


Without culture, everything else cannot work. Strategy will only succeed if it is supported by the appropriate cultural attributes. Is culture more important than strategy?

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About The Author

Torben Rick

Experienced senior executive, both at a strategic and operational level, with strong track record in developing, driving and managing business improvement, development and change management. International experience from management positions in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and United Kingdom

Blog Comments

Great article. I believe that culture is about values and principles shared by a group of people and applies to companies, ethnic groups or job functions like engineers versus sales people. The key in cross-cultural communication is to create a “third culture” of shared concepts, rules and behaviors delivering better outcomes than the sum of each individual group taken separately.

Agree with Anne its an excellent article Torben.

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