What is a company culture?

“What is culture and how do you start to define it for your company / startup?”

I ask myself this question often. And I answer it by saying, “A company culture isn’t a list of perks. It’s what people do when their boss isn’t looking. It’s how people make decisions, the norms and habits taken for granted, and invisible relationships that shape our workplace.”

But, how do we define OUR company culture? That’s a harder question.

Greater minds than mine have taken a stab at it. They’ve put together ways of categorizing corporate cultures through surveys and models. Using vocabulary to shine a light on what continues to be an elusive mystery.

Last year Lukas, our PM and go-to person for all miscellaneous knowledge, introduced me to the Schneider Culture Model. In 1999, William Schneider took it upon himself to try to build on previous works to create a model to describe how organizations make decisions.

Schneider’s model divides companies by how they score on two axes, one axis is the “personal vs impersonal”. Are decisions made in a detached and objective way that focuses on the company, or are they personal, taking into account the individuals involved? The other axis is “actuality vs possibility”. Are decisions made with a focus on what we can actually accomplish today, or the possibility of tomorrow?

Based on these two basic ideas, he divides corporate cultures into 4 types:

  • Collaboration - “We succeed by working together”
  • Control - “We succeed by getting and keeping control”
  • Competence - “We succeed by being the best”
  • Cultivation - “We succeed by growing people who fulfill our vision”

Schneider Culture Model

What I like about this model is that there isn’t a “good” or a “bad” culture. These are all different types of cultures that succeed in different environments. There are examples of Great Places to Work™ in each of these categories. For example:

  • Collaboration - Delta, UPS, Valve
  • Control - Proctor and Gamble, Marriot, US Army
  • Competence - Microsoft, Citibank, Pixar, Netflix
  • Cultivation - 3M, Zappos

Most people would be excited to work at any of these companies, yet they occupy totally different spaces in the model. This is important to note! Especially since it’s easy to get distracted by arguing, “oh, this kind of company culture is better”. Nonsense! Instead, I want to figure out what our company culture is, where we want to be, and then find ways to take us there.

So where does TINT fit in the chart? Last year, I had the company sit down and take a 20 question survey to figure it out. I asked the team, “Where do you think our company is today, and where do you want it to be tomorrow?”. And this year, I did the same thing. Here are the results that I got (You can use the checkboxes to explore the data):

Some initial observations:

  • People > Company - We are more people oriented than company oriented. This makes sense, as the company has produced policies that give employees more flexibility and freedom.
  • Possibility > Actuality - We are slightly more possibility oriented than actuality oriented.
  • More Actuality in 2016 - Since 2015, there is double the number of people in the “Collaboration” vs “Cultivation” quadrant, suggesting that we have become more focused on the present than the future. This makes sense, as we’ve gone through some harsh realities in the past year making it essential for us to focus on what we can do right now.
  • Cultivation - According to the results, we succeed by growing people who fulfill our vision. Not surprising, given that our vision statement is to help our team and customers achieve their potential.
  • A Common Future - If you compare the 2 predictions of an ideal future, you will see that the “where do you want to be in the future” has not changed, and that we seek to be in the Cultivation quadrant.

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What do I want to do based on these results?

  • The Future - From the survey, we see the team expressing a consistent ideal of being more in the cultivation corner. So, let’s figure out how we can uphold what got us there in the first place!
  • Self Improvement Program - At TINT, we have a program that’s focused on being the best you can be, where we can expense up to $100 in anything related to self improvement, as long as you complete a monthly challenge. The results from the survey highlight the importance of this program at our company, and it lets me know that I personally need to continue putting effort into participating and encouraging others to participate in the program.
    • Advisors - This tells me that I should continue to seek highly skilled advisors to help cultivate our team. Since we’ve brought her on, our sales advisor Bridget has helped us tremendously both with the co-founders management skills and also for our sales process.
    • Recruiting and Onboarding - I want to incorporate this framework into our recruiting and onboarding process to tell candidates and new hires what our company culture is and isn’t, and show them how they can contribute. The best way to maintain a culture with new employees is education, and now I have a vocabulary to teach!
    • Everyday Spirit and Compassion - How do we make a more spirited and compassionate workplace? And how can we introduce more change within our everyday routines to take us closer to a workplace that cultivates others? These are questions that I now need to focus on.

    After doing this exercise, I think it would be even more valuable if other companies joined in to see how they see themselves in terms of culture.

Your Turn

Do you want to do the same experiment for your team?

  • Step 1: Copy this Schneider Culture Survey google form
  • Step 2: Use the results, and this google sheet as a template to figure out X and Y coordinates from the results
  • Step 3: Reflect! Some questions to ask yourself:
    • Do I agree or disagree with the results, why?
    • What policies and processes at the company reflect your culture quadrant?
    • How dispersed is everyone’s assessment of the organization, and what does it mean?
    • How can these results help the team better express the company’s culture?

If you do go about doing the above, book a time to share your results with me. And even if you don’t, I’m happy to chat about anything related to company cultures in startups, I enjoy connecting with like minds on the topic.

Additional Reading