What is company culture?

Francisco Homem de Mello

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 The US Marine Corps: an example of what Jim Collins describes as a cult-like culture. They call themselves

The US Marine Corps: an example of what Jim Collins describes as a cult-like culture. They call themselves “The few and the proud.”


“Culture is to recruiting as product is to marketing.”

“A set of beliefs, values, and practices”

“The culture code is the operating system that powers our organization.”

“A great culture provides people the context to deliver their best work.”

–Hubspot Culture Code


“The actual company values, as opposed to the nice sounding values, are shown by who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go.”

“Actual company values are the behaviors and skills that are valued in fellow employees.”

–Netflix Culture Deck


 “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become the habits. Your habits become your values. And your values become your destiny.”

-Mahatma Gandhi


Tony Lin, former COO of Zappos, the shoe e-tailer that’s been acquired by Amazon, talks about organizational culture at Sam Altman’s Stanford How to Start a Startup video series and gives us an interesting definition of culture. A company’s culture is an underlying backbone. “This is a hint of how we may want to define company culture:  ‘Every day _______ and ________ of each member of the team in pursuit of our company ________.’ Some people have filled these in with different things. The first blank, A, could be assumptions, beliefs, values, now my favorite is core values. The second blank for the B blank, people said behavior, my favorite is action. How do you act? In pursuit of goals, that’s kind of weak, in pursuit of big and hairy audacious goals is a little stronger, but a better definition is in the pursuit of mission.” That leads us to Tony Lin’s definition of culture:


Everyday’s core values and behaviors of each member of the team in pursuit of our company mission.


Lin goes on describing how a company culture, translated to core values and actions, affects the day-to-day life of a company: “Why it matters is that it becomes the first principles you sort of go back to when you make decisions. It becomes a way to align people on values that matter to the company. It provides a certain level of stability to fall back on. And it provides level of trust, people sort of trust each other with, but it also gives us a list with which you should be able to figure out what to do and what not to do. And what the more important thing about that is what not to do. Then finally the other thing that is important is it allows you to retain the right employees. There are people in this world that are not going to be a fit for your company, but if you have good strong culture, and the strong core values, you’ll know who you want to retain and who you truly do not want to retain.”

Terry Deal and Arthur Kennedy, two McKinsey consultants that wrote a book called “Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life”, agreed with this vision that every company does have a culture, which is basically “the way we do things at our company.” They break culture down into four main components:

       Values/Beliefs: the core philosophy of the company, translated into values and behaviors that can be articulated;

       Stories/myths: what we will later discuss as anecdotes, which are the interesting stories that are relayed from founders to first hires, and so on, and that, ideally, embody or represent the values and beliefs of the company;

       Heroes: who and what gets rewarded and celebrated. Heroes are a great way to enforce culture, and to create new stories and myths that continually reinforce the culture;

       Rituals: what and how does the company celebrate milestones and accomplishments.