Back to basic: What is company culture?

Mar 29, 2017 | Commerce, English, News & Updates, TheColumnist

“All personal breakthroughs begin with a change in beliefs” – Tony Robbins

Recently I’ve been meeting many new friends and some of them are in the training business, others run their own businesses and they are all proud to say that they know what corporate culture is. For some of them, they think corporate culture is a set of core values, others think corporate culture is just a set of policies that staff have to adhere to. In my previous work experience in a multinational company, corporate culture is a team who is in charge of making sure the whole company meets the culture KPI targets through a series of team building activities and training. So what is corporate culture? Why does everyone seem to have so many different interpretations?

Why do you need corporate culture?
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple shared in an interview, that the late Steve Jobs’ greatest contribution to the world is “the company and its culture”. The world is changing so fast, ideas are cheap and accessible within just a click of the mouse. No matter how good your product is, how good the people you have, they are easily copied and poached. What remains and matters most, that no one can copy from you, is the company culture. Company culture is your one and only business secret.

What does a company culture encompass?
Staff join a company for a reason, it is for financial security, for growth, for contribution or for making a difference. When a company has a clearly defined purpose, which staff can believe in then it enables them to become their larger selves, this is when company culture truly becomes transformative.

Core values
A company is like a living human being, it requires a set of core values to guide its behaviour and make a difference. Personal core values may differ from one person to the next. But in the context of a company, you need a set of values that can unite a diverse group of people coming from different backgrounds and experiences. The definition or meaning of each core value and the conditions to make sure that values are being practiced then becomes critical. Once they understood well, core values can shape positive and affirmative attitudes in an organisation.

Unfortunately, in business textbooks, core values are often designed without understanding the beliefs of the founders or even the staff. You need a proper community study to identify how people work and what they believe in before making an informed recommendation for core values. If you really want your company to be great then pay close attention to understanding the ground and defining the core values to shape the company culture you wish to build.

Group Exercise Instructions at Consulus Purpose Design Workshop

For a core value to take root in an organisation, certain policies must be in place to govern the fundamentals. Policies are not limited to only recruitment but also in terms of staff development, and performance reviews. There must be a clear measurement dashboard to track the cultural health of the company, the impact on the performance of the company as well as the growth of each individual.

Presentation slides of Purpose Design Workshop Day 1 for a PurposeCORE project

Read more on how to build and retain a winning team here.

A habit starts with an action first. To build muscles, one needs practice. For a core value to be embraced, it requires scheduled practices where leaders and staff must all participate.

My European and American friends are always curious about why most Asian staff tend to be so quiet that it is hard to know if they understand, agree or disagree. I always explain that Asian are not encouraged to speak up and voice out our ideas, we are taught to respect and listen to the seniors in order to keep societal harmony. In order to encourage dialogue, they will need a platform where they are given room to speak up. I also found that it is important to train leaders how to be patient and encourage staff to just share whatever is in their mind without judging them. I often had to ask the leaders to be patient to listen well. Once the star senses that the management is willing to listen then they will be more comfortable to share.

Read more about Bonsai – a practice to nurture team trust here

A recent study by Glassdoor showed that the most important factor for job satisfaction is the company’s culture and values at 22% while compensation and benefits came in last overall at 12%. Once again, it’s another affirmation that there is a strong correlation between a strong company culture, company performance and the staff’s sense of ownership. To build culture, it requires purpose-led design, attention to details while keeping it consistent. May your culture shape the world like that of Apple.


Helena Pham is the Partner of Consulus. She is a featured Columnist on Innovation Culture, Leadership Ascension, and Branding for Asian businesses. Her insights appear regularly in Vietnam media, including Saigon Entrepreneurs – Doanh nhan Sai Gon and Business Forum – Dien Dan Doanh Nghiep.  Helena served large firms such as Yusen Air and Sea Service and LG Electronics in brand and marketing roles. She was the lead consultant for corporate strategy, organisational branding, marketing strategy for major regional brands such as SONY,

Helena served large firms such as Yusen Air and Sea Service and LG Electronics in brand and marketing roles. She was the lead consultant for corporate strategy, organisational branding, marketing strategy for major regional brands such as SONY, Saradise, Cyclect, Fast Flow, DST, Tan Tock Seng, Spring Maternity, local brands such as Systech Trading and local governments such as Danang. To date, her Region of Experience includes South-east Asia, South-Asia and North America.

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