How to define your business’ culture – and why you should

by | Apr 28, 2023

In the business world, there are many essential components for success – strategy, product, channel, sales … the management books and experts tell us all about them. But one thing is often overlooked, and it’s crucial to get this right before all the others: culture, writes small business mentor, Bronwyn Reid.

The culture of a business is the foundation for everything that follows. Without a strong, defined and well-understood culture, even the most well-crafted strategies and products can (will?) falter.

So, what exactly is culture?

In the context of a business, culture is the shared values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that define the organisation. It encompasses everything from the way people communicate and interact with each other and stakeholders, to the company’s vision, mission and overall purpose.

Culture sets the tone for everything else that happens – whom you employ, what products/services you sell, what channels you use to sell them, and your financial policies. With a toxic culture, it doesn’t matter how innovative a product is or how well an audience has been targeted, success will be limited.

A healthy business culture is critical. But how do you define it?

Management theory usually tells us that while culture is important, it is not something that can be easily defined or quantified. I differ with traditional thinking on this. With some serious thinking, and a bit of work, I believe that an organisation’s culture CAN be defined.

Again, I turn to traditional management literature, which tells us to look at the company’s values, vision, mission and purpose.  This is where it all gets confusing. What’s the difference between Vision and a Mission? Is a Purpose different to Values? Then there’s a whole host of other words that get thrown in for good measure.

The result is often it’s a mish-mash of lovely-sounding words that nobody can actually tack down, or use as an action guide.

Defining your business’ culture

When we undertook to completely review our own company’s culture, I too got mixed up. To be honest, I went down a deep rabbit hole looking at definitions and examples from others. After a lot of thought and talking with the team, we came up with what we think is a strong, actionable, and clear Culture Document.

We started by deciding on concrete definitions of what we were trying to articulate:

  • Purpose: Why our organisation exists – what makes us get out of bed in the morning.
  • Vision: What we would like to see happen in the world as a result of our actions.
  • Mission: The things we will do to help make that vision become a reality.

To share our purpose, promote our vision, and achieve our mission, we need a team with a particular set of virtues, values and principles.

Virtues values principles table

Once we had all that thrashed out, we put it all together in a Culture Document. That was the idea of one of our business mentors and it has been an extremely valuable exercise.

Now, we have a physical document that sets out our history, what we want the future to look like, and how we intend to get there. It sets out how we will engage with each other, our clients, our suppliers, and everyone who connects with us. No more wishy-washy language.

I encourage you to spend some time and think past the vague statements you can easily find on the internet. Feel free to use the definitions we decided upon in our company to kickstart your own process.

It really is worth the effort, because a positive organisational culture is the bedrock of a successful business.

This post first appeared on on April 28, 2023