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Let’s play a game of word association. When I say ‘company culture’… what do you think of? Happy, entrepreneurial employees with meaningful work? Shared values and beliefs? A competitive advantage in terms of recruitment and retention? Table tennis or foosball? Transparent leadership? Perhaps the saying “all talk, no walk” comes to mind…

[Related: Why business ‘culture’ needs a new narrative and “It’s like Vegemite” – Why the business world has a love-hate relationship with culture]

For this week’s “Let’s Talk…” feature, we asked 25 thought leaders, including senior executives and startup founders, to consider whether culture is losing its currency in business and becoming a buzzword. The general consensus was that culture isn’t just “the flavour of the month” – rather, it plays an increasingly important role in the success of businesses. However, many commentators admitted that culture is difficult for companies to nail, with some explaining that there is “no silver bullet” and the term itself is often “overused and misunderstood”.

In the words of one executive, “Some people try to overlay a culture on to a workplace, others try to build it, I don’t think you can do either. Ultimately, culture is what happens when human beings interact and work together so if you get the right input, which is the right people with similar values, a culture creates itself and continually evolves.”

Read on for detailed insights from this week’s lineup…

“Is culture becoming a buzzword in business?”

Jess Blomfield, founder and CEO of Coworkally: “Culture is the fabric that holds an organisation together (or tears it apart). And something as crucial as culture can’t be reduced to a buzzword. It can be overused and misunderstood, but it’s not buzz. Proactive organisations that are working to create, nurture and grow culture are experiencing the benefits of intentional recruitment, high employee engagement and responsiveness to change. Organisations looking to leverage these cultural benefits can start by identifying the values, personalities and diversity that bring employees and leaders together.”

Deb Noller, founder and CEO of Switch Automation & Portfolio CEO, Heads Over Heels: “Culture isn’t just a buzzword. Your entire company is reliant on having a strong, healthy culture and regardless of what product you’re creating, it’s the people in your team who will get you over the line.”

Danielle Fletcher, Marketing and Strategy Director, Kimberlin Education & Portfolio CEO, Heads Over Heels: “A strong and healthy company culture has been the differentiator for many a great company, helping them stand apart from their peers. From attracting great staff, to fostering innovation, improving communication and encouraging team solidarity, developing a winning corporate culture is an essential element of business practice but not one that happens overnight. The reason we are hearing about culture more often, is due to the important role it plays in organisational success, a role that is only going to become more important rather than being the flavour of the moment.

Mike Edmonds, founder of Meerkats Creative Business Solutions & author (Truth. Growth. Repeat.): “Is culture becoming a buzzword? You bet it is! Along with that other CEO favourite ‘purpose’, culture is just another new black in business. As such, it’s being misunderstood and abused. A company can’t just ‘get’ a good culture. It has to happen organically as the result of (shock, horror) actually being a good environment to work in. Transparent leadership, freedom of expression, authentic equality of gender, age, race and so on. Good culture happens when company owners set out to prove they are sincere about an authentic motive to add value to the world instead of just taking it. That kind of culture is potent and enduring. Bad culture happens when blatantly money-first companies seek to ‘get everyone on board’. It is weak and will fail.”

Heather Marano, founder and Director of Green Door Co: “I believe workplace culture is extremely important… but it can also become a trap.

“Hiring for cultural fit certainly helps a team gel and makes the work environment more cohesive. This is one of the keys to a productive and effective workplace. However, hiring for cultural fit can also lead to hiring people very similar to yourself. Often this may be an unconscious decision. I, myself, have fallen into that trap when hiring staff. This can lead to a homogenous group without any diversity, in regard to both background and ideas, which can stifle innovation and progress.

“Culture isn’t a buzzword – but to be a truly useful term in the workplace, we need to unpack what it really means. It’s more than just everyone getting along. The most effective examples of workplace culture will strike a balance between diverse perspectives and cohesiveness.”

Ben Pfisterer, Country Manager at Square Australia: “I must admit to using the word ‘culture’ sometimes when I talk with people, but it is such an overused word. Some people try to overlay a culture on to a workplace, others try to build it, I don’t think you can do either. Ultimately, culture is what happens when human beings interact and work together so if you get the right input, which is the right people with similar values, a culture creates itself and continually evolves.

“At Square, we are all learning every day and so our ‘culture’ is always changing. One constant, however, is an emphasis on fairness and inclusion which has emerged through our mission of what we want to achieve in Australia. As a team we have shared values and believe in what we are doing, which is helping Australian businesses, especially the underserved, access the necessary tools they need to start, run and grow. These shared goals are what is most important in business, not a focus on culture.”

Ross Reekie, founder of Rise (Consulting and Inspire): “The modern workplace has never been under so much scrutiny due to social media and the ease of employees being able to share their work experiences openly with the world. Prospective employees are now placing higher value on workplace culture. This is a good thing and has firmly put ‘culture’ on business leaders’ radar.

“Culture is becoming a buzzword in business due to the strength of the impact it can have on organisations. The most successful businesses are the ones with the happiest workforces, so this trend for businesses to realise the importance of creating the right culture is here to stay.

“At Rise, we believe that having meaningful work is the key ingredient for long-term happiness. Happy employees doing meaningful work makes businesses more productive, creative and improves the bottom line. Companies can truly thrive by creating a work environment that fosters happiness and empowers people to connect with their organisation’s purpose.”

Ben Mulligan, Regional Marketing Leader at Hootsuite: “Whether you are a start-up cultivating a culture from scratch and trying to instil an entrepreneurial ethos from the get-go, or a more established company facing the challenge of retaining the entrepreneurial spirit that guided your initial success – there is one consistent rule that underpins successfully instilling or fostering an entrepreneurial culture. There is no silver bullet – creating a truly engrained entrepreneurial culture is a multifaceted, thoughtful process. Building and nurturing it takes a long-term, ongoing and deliberate effort.

“One of the changes we see most commonly as businesses grow is the loss of the customer-centric approach on which they built success. Small and young businesses have the agility to really listen to customers and flexibly provide the solutions that they need, but as companies grow, listening to customers can become more difficult, and it is often de-prioritised. This is the death of entrepreneurial culture. At Hootsuite we measure our success by our customers’ success – and this means listening. We are focused on our helping our customers – large and small – to strategically grow their brand, business and customer relationships with social.

“Social media has made it possible to connect with customers, listen to, engage with and harness their feedback, problems and desires more easily than ever before. It is imperative that business make the most of this and get back to really listening to customers. Regardless of industry, providing entrepreneurial, innovative solutions or services relies on truly understanding a client’s pain points. Using social media, and tools that can harness and distil customer information at scale will ensure you retain an entrepreneurial culture, be agile, and provide the best solution to your customer’s latest challenge.”

Matt Butterworth, CEO of Easy Weddings: “Culture isn’t just a buzzword. When the rewards of having a great culture are better staff retention, lower sick days, attracting more A players, and an increase in shared vision, you really can’t afford to not design your workplace culture.

“We, like many other businesses, learnt the hard way about the importance of culture in the earlier days. When we first started out we hired on skills more than culture. But we found that once we got to a team of 25 those one on one relationships between staff and owners were less impactful due the time restrictions of scaling a business.

“So, we made a conscious decision to go with culture by design rather than culture by default. Now we actually employ based on culture first and skills second. We’ve found that when you approach recruitment from a culture first perspective that good people hold each other accountable and attract others that want to live in that environment. That way culture becomes self-perpetuating and is not lead by management but rather the entire team.”

Claudia Barriga-Larriviere, Head of People and Culture at BlueChilli: “Culture is not a static thing. it’s not something you can think about once a year and check in again every few months. We not only live it every day, we build it with every decision. It’s crucial that values are defined and the organisation’s mission is alive and human so we can all exercise our role in them to help build culture collectively. Check in with it at least once a week and push its limits.”

Rafael Moyano, CEO of the Adecco Group Australia: “Culture is definitely a huge focus for a lot of businesses this year, but only a handful of businesses are really tackling the topic in an impactful way. It’s easy to take a buzzword and to run with it but in order to nurture a healthy workplace culture, leaders have to understand their people and implement cultural initiatives that is tailored to their individual workplaces.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to workplace culture that will ensure a happy and engaged workforce, and businesses have to be mindful of this to ensure they aren’t simply being swept away by the next big trend in workforce management.

“For me, the most effective ways to do this are to maintain transparency, to cultivate co-worker relationships through an encouraging rather than a forceful approach, and to provide an open forum for a two-way dialogue in which staff are afforded a safe space to voice their honest opinions.”

Georgia Murch, workplace culture specialist & author (Feedback Flow): “The word culture is not new. So, it’s not a buzzword. Yet we are getting sick of all talk and no walk.  It’s not the word we have a problem with. It’s people not taking responsibility for stepping up and being the culture, or the workplace, they want to see. If culture is a collective of people’s behaviours. How they treat each other. We are bored with knowing this, yet not enough people acting on it. A culture, and person for that matter could be defined by what they are willing to walk past, to allow. Culture is not new. Being one that stands out from the crowd is the buzz.

Evette Cordy, co-founder of Agents of Spring & author (Cultivating Curiosity): Culture is one of the most important aspects of an organisation’s ability to innovate. It refers to the unwritten rules that govern how people behave within an organisation. Leaders set the business culture and are ultimately responsible for recognising desired behaviours. I believe that innovative organisations are those who encourage a culture of curiosity and inquiry, where people are permitted to explore and question, leading employees to be intrinsically rewarded and organisations to uncover new insights and find the right problems to solve. To innovate, we must learn and encourage others to ask questions that challenge the status quo and our pervasive beliefs and assumptions. Remember, once upon a time we believed the world was flat!”

Debbie O’Connor, founder of White River Design: “We have a strong brand culture of celebrating even the smallest of wins in our studio and co-working space. This includes the ringing of our ‘victory bell’ and publicly sharing our win on social media. When we reach our quarterly goals, we celebrate in style with rewards that we might not usually be able to enjoy. These have included the Harbour Bridge Climb, hot air ballooning, spa sessions, high tea, the theatre, harbour cruising and fine dining. Celebrating with your team is an integral part in recognising everyone’s hard work and contribution to the success of the business.”

Darren Hill, co-founder of Pragmatic Thinking: “No, culture isn’t a buzzword. Business is simply a new invention (200 years or so) and culture has been around as long as human beings have existed. I guess the realisation has dawned upon businesses that a business isn’t a system-driven machine, but rather a people-driven organism. Every business is a human business and success and failure correlate with the quality of the collective people-power. This is why the culture conversation continues—and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. It’s not a buzzword – in fact, the culture conversation is just getting started.”

Emma Bannister, founder of Presentation Studio & author (Visual Thinking): “I think it depends on whether you stick to it or hide behind it. A lot of people think of culture as an overused, fluffy feel-good thing and it Is just some words printed on an office wall. As a leader, my goal is to share my vision and company purpose. Then it’s about ensuring my team know they are our number one priority. We bring that to life through daily activities that live our collective values and by championing our team to make them happen; creative, collaborative, passionate and supportive. I must communicate what’s required of them clearly, and I must be held accountable to that.”

Ben Thompson, founder and CEO of Employment Hero: “Culture has certainly been pushed front of mind for workplaces as society has changed and employee expectations have shifted. However, many businesses misunderstand what good culture is and what it can achieve for them. It is not about hiring the same personality. Culture is about the systems and processes in place that make up the DNA of your business and stems from your mission statement and company values. It is repeatable and infiltrates every aspect, from recruitment to onboarding, to how your team communicates and conducts meetings, to how you respond to customers.

“Today, businesses are more public than ever before about their missions, visions and values and people can easily decide if they align well with a company culture or not. In saying this, as the culture of your business is directly tied to the people running it, culture should never be considered a ‘buzzword,’ but rather understood as an integral component of your businesses’ health and ongoing success.”

Rhys Taylor, regional director (ANZ) with Aerohive: “I don’t believe “culture” is becoming a buzzword. If you believe in corporate culture as an organisation, it certainly shows, Disney Corporation and Apple are two very good examples of successful corporate culture, and esprit de corps is very much alive in the military.

“Research shows that a strong corporate culture is critical for hiring and retaining staff, as well as productivity and performance, all of which impact the bottom line. That said, hollow claims of a “great culture” won’t stand up if it’s nothing but puff on a brochure. It needs to be authentic and substantiated and driven by top management throughout an entire organisation.”

Ruth Hatherley, founder and CEO of Moneycatcha: In my experience, when you fail, you need the right people around you to pick you up, learn from the failure and apply those lessons to be successful in future. I don’t think we are naturally taught to be ok with failing or to simply accept it as part of our life journey. Take stock of the situation, regroup and don’t be disillusioned if things don’t go your way.

“Since I started my company I have handpicked my team, identified the networks I had to win and built a tribe in both my personal and professional lives. We respect and trust each other, and work together – all sharing the same vision. I’ve built this company from scratch and I felt it was essential for me to get the cultural foundation right because in startup life, you fail every single day, a lot! And I mean A LOT!”

James Coyle, Chief Customer Officer with SuperEd: “A company’s organisational culture is extremely important because it goes to the very core values a business lives by, the people and what they’re trying to achieve. Culture is in the way a company treats their staff as well as their clients which is why it’s paramount.  To the extent that it’s a buzzword, some organisations may obsess over how they do things and try to create this artificial environment by imposing values that are not aligned with the business.

“At SuperEd, we’re here to help empower people to make better decisions regarding their financial future. Living that value by hiring passionate staff that want to make a difference and a real change in the life of these people – that’s what drives us as a startup. Culture is demonstrated in actual behaviours not in documents, not in pieces of paper, but actual behaviours and it starts with the leadership group and how they’re behaving by setting an example for the rest of the team. What they’re demonstrating and how that’s consistent within an organisation is what defines you as an organisation that has great values, principles and is mission-driven to help empower and enrich the lives of everyday people. Leading by example is the way to ensure that culture doesn’t become reduced to simply a buzzword that doesn’t reflect who you are and what you strive for as a business.”

Monica Watt, General Manager, Human Resources and Administration with ELMO Software Limited: “More than just a buzzword, culture is a critical term across any business as it has a significant and systemic impact on employee engagement, talent attraction, and financial performance. A company’s culture is its business values in action, which then defines how employees feel about their role and the people they work with.

“Recruitment is key to building and guiding a business culture through hiring for a growth mindset. Culture can be further cultivated through performance alignment where rewards and recognition stem from behaviours and attitudes that resonate with the business’ values.

“Employees shape a company’s culture rather than the executive team. Company leaders must have an open mind and be actively engaged in listening to staff as they are the heartbeat and feeling of the business. It’s important for the executive team to be attentive to their employees to enable engagement with the team, their work and help them to become the best possible version of themselves.

“Trust in the executive team, the values and the business’ purpose is crucial. Trust means there is a willingness to engage and to work together for the common good. Trust means we will succeed and learn together. This is culture in action.”

LaFawn Davis,  Global Head of Culture & Inclusion at Twilio: “There are buzzwords about culture (e.g. culture fit), but the importance of culture still isn’t truly understood – especially in the workplace. Every company has a culture –  good, bad or otherwise – it still exists. Culture is all about how the way we work and the way we treat each other and therefore has to be communicated, monitored and course corrected as a company scales. All of this, resting on the foundation of explicit and implicit values that leadership has put in place and role models. When a company takes culture out of the theoretical realm and into action, that’s where it’s employees thrive and innovation succeeds.

Sarah Sahyoun, Chief Culture Officer at OpenLearning: “My immediate thoughts about the word ‘culture’ as a buzzword is that it brings with it negative connotations since the word is used so commonplace in business. However, the good news is that with so much emphasis and hype around what defines great workplace ‘culture’, it has brought with it more constructive conversations around why it is so important. In the past, employers thought offering a good salary was the main driving force behind hiring and acquiring quality talent. However, as times have changed, and employee values have shifted, cultivating great company culture needs to be a priority at an executive level as it directly impacts on talent acquisition, productivity, and retention.

“In addition to this, employers are beginning to realise the impact culture has on the operational side of the business. Fostering a healthy company culture is needed to create environments that encourage innovation, safety for employees to trial, fail, and learn from projects, move fast, make decisions, and embrace change.

“With employees also becoming more interested in a company’s values and how these align with their own, a strong company culture will be the main competitive advantage businesses can utilise to stay ahead of the game and their competitors.”

Charles Hunter, Executive General Manager at WellBeing GROW: “People don’t often talk about energy when it comes to workplace culture. You often hear culture buzzwords like “fast-paced”, “caring” or “hard working”. However, the cornerstone of culture is actually energy. From a wellness perspective, companies should be focusing on maximising energy to help people perform at their best. Companies also need to acknowledge that culture is both living and evolving and workplace culture flows into the lives of their employees even when they are not at work.

“One of the best examples of a ‘living’ culture is Cotton On. I was lucky enough to visit their head office in Geelong recently and on arriving, before I even went inside, you could literally feel the energy.  Cotton On acknowledges that their employees will be spending 2000 hours of their year at work, so they focus on creating an environment that value’s their employees’ time. They focus on making a positive difference to the time, quality and energy present in an employees’ life (not just in the office).  The result? One of Australia’s and the world’s most successful apparel businesses.”

Mark Gustowski, Acting CEO of QUT Creative Enterprise Australia: Business culture should be treated as your north star.  It all starts with transparency and making your team aware of the vision and mission of your company. In doing this, you shape values of respect and shared understanding which will naturally transition into a mentality that appreciates a common goal. This is the point at which you achieve everyone’s buy-in and when your culture will be abuzz with sentiments of excitement and pride.”

About “Let’s Talk…”

“Let’s Talk…” is an exciting weekly initiative that provides entrepreneurs and industry experts with a forum to share rapid-fire views on a range of issues that matter to start-ups and SMEs. Every Wednesday, we pose a themed question to a line-up of knowledgeable industry figures, with a view to picking their brains for valuable insights to share with you, our readers.

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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