Culture: It's How Things Get Done

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights the critical aspects of an organization’s culture—things that likely aren’t written down in any company handbook.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

Ask six people to define culture, and you’ll probably get twelve different answers. Some say it’s the mission and the values—for others, it’s ping pong tables and work attire.

Culture, though, boils down to just one definition—it’s how things get done.

When I was growing up, the minute I walked into my aunt’s house, I had to kick off my sneakers at the door. The reason? The pride of this Midwest household was a white shag carpet, and my aunt kept it spotless. There were clear plastic runners across the rug to walk on, which matched the plastic coverings on the furniture.

Best of all—they raked the carpet with this special rake to make it look like new.

I didn’t have to do any of these things at home—but their house, their rules. When I got a little older, though, it occurred to me why these things were so important. My aunt and uncle didn’t have a lot of money, and they worked hard for anything they had—she as a nurse, and he at an oil refinery.

Their rules communicated their work ethic and values. That was the culture that made their house a home.

These days, we’re all deciding on the “house rules” as we move forward. For some, it’s okay to work anywhere, anytime. Others want to go back to the days of everyone in the office. Many are somewhere in between.

But just like the carpet rake and the plastic runners, that’s all just the form—the protocols and procedures. Far more important is the substance—how people actually engage and interact with each other. We won’t find it spelled out in some handbook. It’s not captured in some slogan on a website or a poster in the hallway.

The language of culture is emotion—the spirit of how we do things. And it’s more likely to be felt than stated. As Khoi Tu, a culture expert in our Consulting business in our London office, told me this week, “Culture is a celebration of what we hold as important—what we believe and hold sacred. And it’s up to the leader to take it from invisible to visible. Otherwise, it’s hard to change.”

Culture can be a bit of a conundrum. I can remember a client meeting a few years ago, when every member of their senior team was asked to define their culture. As each person spoke, it became clear that they were focused only on the form—not the substance. But when the question changed—“What is it like to be an employee here?”—the answers were from the heart, stripped of jargon, and laser focused on how work gets done.

These days, defining culture is far more than just deciding on office space and real estate. It should go without saying that any stigma around working from home has been removed—given just how productive some people can be when working remotely. And it’s certainly not about the company logo on a shirt or taking your dog to work—what the experts call the artifacts of culture. What matters most is what’s behind those artifacts—the beliefs, behaviors, and shared mindset that are at the heart of a collective culture.

As Sarah Jensen Clayton, who leads Culture & Change in North America for our firm, told me this week, “For companies today, it’s a culture reboot—symbolically turning the page on what has been a difficult chapter. We’re leaving the past behind us and looking forward to the path ahead. This takes the culture transition from the merely tactical to the inspirational.”

Given how far we’ve come, and with all we’ve accomplished, it’s time to contemplate what’s next. We need to ask ourselves: How do we continue to empower people? How do we interact with and help each other? What should collaboration look like? How will the best ideas emerge? Do we need to be in physical proximity so that the happenstance of meeting in the hallway or getting coffee can spark insightful conversations? Or can we replicate that in other ways?

In short, it’s all about culture—who we are, what we stand for, what we believe, and how things get done. Here are some thoughts:

·  The culture quandary. Having the right culture, at the right time, and with the right people can elude many companies. And often, it’s more art than science. In a survey our firm conducted, nearly three-quarters of executives described culture as being extremely important to organizational performance. And yet, only a third said that their culture was fully aligned with their business strategy. Today, everyone is in the same boat, as culture stakes are raised for almost every company on the planet. We are witnessing more change than we have seen in the past ten years. Different work will need to get done—and work will need to get done differently. That means culture. It’s not one size fits all—no one can tell any of us what culture is or should be. It needs to be lived, breathed, and experienced every day.

·  The unwritten rules. Policies and procedures certainly have their place—they are an important way for people to come together as a society, a community, or an organization. But these structures, alone, do not adequately describe culture. For that, we must look to the unwritten rules—and every organization has them. “Organizations can change policies all they want, but there is still a ‘code’ for how we get things done,” Lynn Foster, a member of our North America Culture & Change team, told me this week. In some places, it’s all about performance—the “ask for forgiveness, not permission” entrepreneurial culture. Others will be more hierarchical. It will vary by leadership, industry, history, and people. But within every company, there are informal networks and unwritten rules that will never be found in any employee handbook.

·  Cultivating culture. When it comes to the care and feeding of culture, the leader plays a disproportionately large role. Indeed, culture starts at the top, where it is created and shaped. That’s why our Korn Ferry Institute describes leaders as having two core roles today. First, they are the culture champions—the role models who embody the mindset, beliefs, and desired behaviors. Second, they are the culture architects—who make sure that the right structures are in place to support those desired behaviors. By word and example, leaders ensure that a healthy, inclusive culture takes root and grows. But it takes time—or, as Khoi Tu said in our conversation, “If you shout louder at a plant, it won’t grow faster. It takes the right conditions for cultivation.”

·  A team sport. As any coach would tell you, a great team plays freely—for the love of the game. When the focus is on playing brilliantly, winning is the consequence. In the same way, when trust and belief permeate the culture, people will step up and get things done. To take a deeper look, our firm conducted extensive research on organizational culture during the pandemic. Among the many findings—as companies are pressed to be more agile, people are more empowered and have greater freedom to express themselves. With that empowerment, employees will stay. And that’s crucial today. Because while the leader starts the change, it takes a movement to drive it forward.

It must be found on the walls and in the halls—but, most important, in the hearts and minds of every person. And that’s culture. Elusive to define, powerful when deeply felt, and best experienced together. Indeed, it is how we get things done.