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Values Are Not the Same Thing as Culture

Ask these two questions: “Who are the heroes around here?” and “How do you get in trouble?” to understand your company culture


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I had coffee recently with an executive in a family business. He isn’t part of the family. He’s talented, growth-oriented and extremely frustrated.

The owner is the CEO and a wonderful guy. He has a language problem, however, that causes his business (and its people) to suffer greatly. He confused two words — value and culture — and attempted to create an environment rich with family values but instead produced a mess.

I have no problem with what is commonly known as traditional values. The problem is that he confused those values with an effective business culture. Accountability and performance are nonexistent.

Most of us prefer to work with friendly, kind, compassionate people. But the culture you build, whether by design or default, is a function of the behaviors you allow and reward. I haven’t met a CEO yet who consciously rewards profit-destroying behavior, but I’ve seen plenty who allow it.

When I start a coaching engagement with an executive, I typically interview members of the executive’s team: board, boss (if not CEO), peers and subordinates. It’s helpful for me to understand the culture, because people must work within a set of norms to succeed. I often find that the desired culture isn’t the existing culture. The quickest way to understand the real culture is by asking two questions: “Who are the heroes around here?” and “How do you get in trouble around here?”

Do values inform culture? Unless everyone is playing games, absolutely. Do values equal culture? Heck no.

Should values be part of your hiring process? Perhaps. You have to be careful about discrimination and realize that a diverse team is stronger than uniformity. However, values alone won’t produce a healthy culture. What you reward and allow will create your culture. You can manage culture, but it takes thoughtful planning and healthy communication about performance to make it flourish.

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