“It’s the vibe of the thing”……can you explain your culture?


Last week I spoke at a boardroom breakfast to a group of leaders from infrastructure, mining, legal and local government.  The topic was on my blog “technical competence without people skills –  what is it costing you”? I was a little apprehensive prior to the presentation knowing that most of the people in the room were technical experts and here I was about to tell them that they needed to develop their leadership skills!  I shouldn’t have been concerned.  The input, debate and discussion was encouraging.

There was one question that came up about three quarters through my presentation “you’ve spoken a lot about culture today…. what is culture anyway?”.  As a public speaker, there is always a small sense of dread getting a question that you may not have an immediate answer to…. but this one, this one I could talk about for a whole other session!

My immediate response was that culture is the values that guide internal behavior and action within an organisation.  Someone else in the room quoted the movie The Castle saying, “it’s the vibe of the place”, another said, “It is the unspoken expectations of how things are”; another said, “It determines whether you fit it in or not”.  It is such an intangible element, yet the most important aspect of an organisation.  A cohesive work culture is a powerful retention advantage and an organisation that stands by its values in everything it does – action, behavior and consequence is important to staff.

It is the number one question I get asked at interviews about a potential new employer “what’s the culture like?”. This can sometimes be hard to articulate and to describe to a third party – but it is an essential step in winning over a prospective employee.  Why should they leave their current role to join your company? In this day age, it has to be more than the job description and the pay because you can be assured there is a comparable job down the road. Culture is the differentiator – it is the intangible ‘something’ that can get a star candidate across the line.

I had a marketing executive call from Melbourne this week wanting to discuss the Adelaide market and potential opportunities.  He understands that finding a similar level role and remuneration may be difficult, but he is more interested in the right ‘cultural fit’ and returning to his home state.  He will only move if this match is right.  He is representative of a large proportion of the ‘passive’ market that is open to change and opportunities, but still need to be ‘sold’ on culture and an employer’s value proposition.  The problem is that so many companies still can’t successfully articulate this offer.

I know recruiting for myself; it was only when I could confidently communicate the culture at interview stage that my rate of hiring the right people and keeping them skyrocketed.  I didn’t do the big sales pitch – just here it is, warts and all. I learnt what were the two things about our culture that made people thrive and stay and they were also the two things that made people leave. It was not uncommon to get to the end of the interview and agree that it wasn’t the right match for either of us. Better now than later I say.

The same with clients. I was recruiting for the mining industry last year and I had a technically competent candidate who ticked all the boxes in terms of skills and experience.  After an hour and a half, I knew that there wasn’t a cultural match – he was motivated by flexibility and being able to blend his work life with family life.  For this particular organisation and role, the culture required strong achievement drive and a commitment to long hours and travel.  That’s okay of course; it just wasn’t the right fit.

The hardest part for recruiters as well as companies recruiting themselves is to be able to articulate the internal workings and behaviors of the company without being apologetic about it, in an honest and compelling way. Then sticking to it – even when you know it’s a great candidate in front of you, being able to walk away because ultimately you have different values and ways of operating is critical to long term retention.

Not sure how do you articulate your culture? Ask your staff!  They will tell you and usually come up with better descriptions and examples – especially about the unspoken culture.  My first week at Recruitment Solutions back in the late 90’s, I went to head office wearing a pantsuit.  The girls in the Sydney office looked me up and down, took me to lunch and told me that women weren’t allowed to wear pants! What? That wasn’t in the manual! I had been through induction that covered values, behaviours, standards etc, there was nothing about not being able to wear pants! Internal culture – you won’t always find the answers in the training manual.

Remember that in the race to recruit and retain the best and brightest means being able to convey your culture – what is so great about working here? Include this in your recruitment process – at the end of the interview have a 5-minute spiel about culture, expectations and values. Save yourself and the individual a lot of time, money and emotion by getting the culture fit right upfront.

Culture is everything. It is still one of the most important elements to attract (and keep) the best people to your organisation. Get a jump-start on your competition and recognise that at the core of what makes good companies great is a strong organisational culture.

Of course for those that don’t have a great culture…don’t worry about trying to articulate it….perhaps we should get together and discuss how to improve it?