Culture: You Can’t Buy It. You Have to Earn It


I recently met with the founder and CEO of a real estate development company.

She described the explosive growth her firm had enjoyed over the past several years, and how her team had been called on to rise to the occasion and step up in their roles through the growing pains.

“But you know, through it all,” she emphatically pointed out, “we’ve been really focused on our culture. I know how important a strong culture is in moments like these.”

Impressive, I thought to myself. In my experience, not every executive has culture top of mind. Curious, I asked her to elaborate on what this culture-building looked like at her company.

“Oh, so, for example, we got everyone in the company this wonderfulbook.”

“Sorry?” I replied, confused. “A book?”

“Yeah, there’s this book that I just love about Zappos—have you read it? —and how they have the best customer service in the world. So, we gave everyone a free copy of the book.”

“Uh-huh, okay,” I said to her, silently revoking my “impressed” assessment and shifting more to the domain of “concerned.”

“No, wait, it gets better,” she began to elaborate. “In 10 of the books there was a Zappos gift card! It was such a surprise. It was really great.”

Later in the conversation, as I dug deeper about the company’s era of growth, the cracks began to emerge.

Yes, it had been a period of explosive growth, but…employees were increasingly burning out. Trust had begun to erode between the various departments. Festering, low-simmering resentments began to heat up. Retention numbers were starting to rise to the level of concern.

And, considering what I learned about this executive’s approach to culture-building, none of that surprised me all that much.

I see this kind of thing all the time. When teams get stretched thin—as is so often the case in periods of high growth—leaders may intuit, as this executive rightly had, that culture needs to be fortified. But so often leaders equate culture-building, with the temporary morale boost of buying stuff.

Spa gift cards. Extra donuts and hot cocoa around the office (or delivered to a remote worker via Uber Eats.) I would even put bonuses and raises into this category.

But this “stuff” can be likened to candy. It tastes good. It gives you a temporary energy boost. In the right context, it can be the very thing you need. But candy is not a meal. It doesn’t sustain you. It doesn’t provide the nutrients that feed the organism that is a complex, always-evolving organization.

Okay, so if buying stuff for your folks is the candy, then what are the hearty, nutritious, health-building “protein and veggies” of culture-building?

Here are some healthy menu options:

  1. Choosing Core Values Daily
    Culture is reflected in the values you share and stand for, together. That means having core values that aren’t meaningless fluff or weak generalities—but specific, bold, compelling articulations of what matters to us, and why. That means hiring people in line with those values. The discipline of treating colleagues in a manner consistent with those values. Communicating in a way that is an expression of those values (this is in contrast to merely asserting values). It means organizing, distributing authority and sharing information in a way that reinforces the values. Tougher choices look like taking on clients in line with those values (and having the courage to step away from lucrative ones that do not). In other words, when you have a clear set of values and you act according to them, it often isn’t easy. But the difficulty itself shows you that those values actually mean something. And as you live out those values, your people begin to see, understand, appreciate, and draw strength from the culture they are a part of.
  2. Creating Space for Difficult Conversations
    When breakdowns or even betrayals occur, do your people have the space to talk it out openly and productively? There’s perhaps no greater way to build a healthy culture that can withstand the pressures of organizational transition. The irony is that often, in an effort to maintain a superficial culture of congeniality, colleagues gloss over disagreements in the name of just getting on with it and not rocking the boat. “We’ve got a can-do culture, over here! We just make it work!” It’s almost as if a parallel “Pleasantville” culture gets propped up. Of course, under the surface is where the real culture is getting built and concretized—and it ain’t a very productive or pleasant one! It’s marked by resentments and resignation, the result of a pressure building without any escape valve.
  3. Having a Purpose
    Of course, one of the most basic but often overlooked aspects of culture-building is getting connected to a larger sense of purpose. Especially in moments of high growth, this is crucial. Yes, we’re growing, but why are we growing? Is it growth for growth’s sake? That’s a sentiment that may feel really resonant for the venture-capital firm seeking to maximize profits. But for the folks on the ground, that’s not enough of a “why” to justify the pressures and changes brought about by the growth. Of course, there’s no magic bullet when it comes to building culture—I’ve spent this entire blog making that case—but a key pillar is a strong sense of purpose. I’ve personally witnessed several organizations navigate deeply divisive transitions because of the strength of their why.

The protein and veggies of culture-building—as opposed to the candy—aren’t available at the swipe of a credit card. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for buying stuff for your people. At a recent retreat, I delighted in showering my team with a smorgasbord of company SWAG—company-branded backpacks, decadent chocolate bars, personalized office accessories, and a lot more. I also awarded bonuses for extraordinary work they have done through a global pandemic. And I know that all those gifts and perks and bonuses were much appreciated. But for my team, those are very much the candy on top of hours upon hours—sometimes years—of culture building from the ground up.

The approaches I mentioned above, they take work. And patience. They are necessarily complex endeavors, because they involve human beings, who are impossibly complex themselves. But a strong culture, when built correctly, and from the ground up, is truly the gift that will keep giving, and reliably sustain your organization no matter the road that lays ahead.