Culture’s Big Business Moment

Between Greg Smith’s grandiose call out of Goldman Sach’s unsavory corporate ideology to Facebook’s lauded hackathons, company culture is having a moment. Here’s what the experts say about creating, sustaining, and changing the spirit that can make a business go from good to great.

Culture’s Big Business Moment


Company culture is having a moment. And
why not? The culture of an organization can be the key to its
sustained success (see: shiny, happy Zappos employees ringing up more
than $1 billion in sales
or degradation at the hands of disgruntled employees (see Greg
Smith’s much-shared op-ed in The New York Times describing the erosion of Goldman Sach’s corporate to something “toxic and destructive”).

More than a business buzzword, culture
is a cornerstone, according to Shawn Parr. But that hasn’t
stopped it from being misunderstood and discounted as the woo-woo
component of a company that doesn’t have much of an impact on its
balance sheet. However, Parr argues, engaged employees in a
performance-oriented culture give businesses a better chance at
financial growth and innovation. Culture is a place where strategy is

A heated debate took place among Fast
expert bloggers and our community of readers on whether
culture eats strategy for lunch.” The original quote “wasn’t meant to take sides so much
as it was to highlight that the amount of time business executives
pay to each is way out of proportion based on the contribution of
each to an organization’s success,” wrote Brent Daily at


Business leaders at SXSW last week
clamored to take a stab at articulating which is more important.
Their answers, while different, suggested that organizational culture
was a critical component in enabling the successful execution of

Here’s Edward Saatchi, cofounder of NationalField, on how
their culture of accountability made it possible to carry out the
startup’s strategy to connect on-the-ground operatives during Obama’s
2008 campaign.


Ultimately, writes Bob Frisch, managing
partner of The Strategic Offsites Group, you don’t have to choose.
“It’s like asking whether you would rather back a great poker
player with weak cards or an average player with great cards. You’re
more likely to win when you have both: a great player and great
cards. The same goes for culture and strategy. You don’t have to
choose. Culture doesn’t eat strategy, and the company that lets
culture do so is likely to starve.”

With that in mind, we’ve rounded up the
experts to weigh in on how to build a great culture, how to nurture
it, how to use it to foster innovation, and how to change it when
things aren’t working.

Bake It In


For Boy CEO Mark Zuckerberg, hacking goes way beyond the allegations that he
coded his way into the Harvard Crimson and ConnectU–it’s an
integral part of him and the company he started in his dorm room. For Zuck, the
hacker culture is about using shared effort and knowledge to make
something bigger, better, and faster than an individual can do alone.
His “hackathons” at Facebook are legendary and help foster
innovation in all manner of projects from building better data
centers to crowdsourcing urban planning for its surrounding
neighborhood. At Facebook’s new headquarters, the Hacker culture
reigns supreme
–the writing is literally on the wall.

Encourage Buy-in

Dennis Crowley, cofounder and CEO of
Foursquare, says that when the staff grew from two to 10 people, he
started by hiring friends he knew could work together. That fostered
an initial spirit of teamwork and open sharing that scaled along with
Foursquare’s growth.


Pay Nothing

Founder of ClearGears Arshad Chowdhury
is convinced that culture isn’t costly. It can even save money. Start by getting rid of expensive firewalls that block Facebook and YouTube. Access to
social media tools can help employees research and network faster.
Also, Chowdhury says, it’s not true that the longer you work, the
more work you will get done. According to a 2010 study, flexible work
hours can lead to increased retention and productivity. If you must
have staff on site, let ’em sleep. A NASA study indicates that a nap
of just 26 minutes can boost productivity by 34%.


Throw Yourself Off a Cliff

To encourage innovation, Reid Hoffman,
cofounder of LinkedIn, believes you need to hire creative truth
seekers who can assemble a plane on the way down from that cliff


Empower and Support

It’s not just enough to hire great
people, you have to empower them–especially junior staff.


Recognize Achievement

A culture is only as good as the
environment that supports it. People work for more than just a
paycheck, they want their achievements to be recognized by the
leaders and peers. Erin Newkirk, founder of RedStamp, says a little
thank-you can go a long way
. And it doesn’t have to cost a thing.

Eliminate Poison at the Source 


If someone or something isn’t working,
it’s time for a change. To shift culture in a better direction, Jim
Fowler, CEO of Jigsaw, says start with eliminating those who are
poisoning the well.

Now it’s your turn. What strategies have you used to create and foster company culture? Tweet us @FastCoLead with the hashtag #FCculture to join the conversation, or leave a comment below.


[Image: Flickr user Simon Li]

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.