Corporate culture

Corporate culture is one of the expressions that tend to become empty phrases as a result of inflationary use – if they’re not filled with real meaning. Sustainability is another example. An indication of the extent to which these terms are in danger of becoming clichés is the number of textbooks on the subject – and there are an awful lot on corporate culture.

The other thing about these expressions is that they are very elusive when it comes to establishing a binding definition – so there are a great many definitions out there that reflect a vast variety of interpretations, some of them contradictory.

Hans-Rudolf Jost makes the point with a clever comparison: “Establishing what corporate culture is can be compared to nailing blancmange to the wall.” (Jost, Hans Rudolf: Unternehmenskultur, Zurich 2003). Now, I have my own definition too, of course but it may differ from that of many others because I also look at individual people and their actions (marketing specialists are always in search of a unique quality or USP and this often seems rather contrived, but more on that another time): corporate culture is what happens in or is done by a company on a day-to-day basis that customers can actually experience.

And this is far removed from the much-quoted company mission statements, visions and claimed values: “Theory is one thing – what’s really counts is what happens on the pitch” (Adi Preißler, first division coach of RW Oberhausen in the 1970s).

Incidentally, I define customers as anyone who has any kind of relationship with the company. In addition to current customers, this includes potential customers, employees and their families, neighbours, shareholders, cooperation partners, suppliers, the press and the interested public. So those in the company are called upon to represent it as they would like it to be perceived if they were customers themselves (i.e. in this broader sense). This is almost a “categorical business imperative” (I shall come back to this idea in a later article).

It goes without saying that it’s up to management to set a good example: more than ever, this requires authentic, down-to-earth entrepreneurs who have a sense of responsibility. This calls for an approach based on welfare.

Being a part of the company, employees are also required to do their bit in giving the brand positive energy. This calls for an approach based on independent responsibility. Even though managing directors have to have a different view of things, every effort must be made to ensure that there is no divide between top management, middle management and employees but instead a shared focus on the common cause.

One indication of a flawed if not dangerous corporate culture is the expression: “The powers that be!”. Words are important, though: if you can succeed in conveying a shared vision that involves expressing genuine recognition and respect for all those involved in the company, you’ll be virtually unbeatable. After all, the competition sometimes does fall asleep – and gets dragged down internally by human foibles. So while the others are getting involved in a lot of pointless drama, you can expand your lead. If everyone in the company is on the same wavelength and your employees are behind you – motivated by an excellent corporate culture – you can get much more out of their potential and you have a definite competitive advantage.

And all of a sudden the much-quoted soft values go hard – like frozen blancmange, if you like. A sense of togetherness and a spirit of optimism are the results of corporate culture practised in this way – and they can’t be imposed by decree or by posting mission statements. Once again: “… what happens on the pitch is what counts!” Of course it all sounds so simple in theory and is so much more difficult to put into practice. But undertaking a critical assessment of your company and then taking concrete action to inspire a genuine corporate culture is a meaningful and enjoyable undertaking – and it results in success.

Jochen König, 52 years old, business degree and MA in philosophy

23. Jan. 2015

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