How To Assess Your True Corporate Culture

In my last entry, we covered the role of corporate culture in achieving your company’s mission. Ideally, your corporate culture guides people’s behaviors to be consistent with the corporate values, which enable you to implement your strategy for achieving your mission. The trick is assessing whether your corporate culture is, in fact, aligned with your values. If it’s not, this is a major problem because corporate culture is a really difficult force to manipulate quickly if you discover it’s not aligned.

Typically the culture evolves through who you hire, how you onboard them, what you train, how you evaluate, who you promote, how you pay, how leaders behave when flustered, who gets recognized, etc. All of those things are really difficult to change in the short-term, if you find out that your culture is not aligned with your ascribed corporate values.

Therefore, you want to assess your culture frequently and make subtle influential tweaks wherever you sense it might be evolving in a problematic way. Think of this like pruning the bonsai tree as it grows. You can’t simply create a bonsai tree to look exactly as you want it to – you have to care for it over time, watch its growth and evolution, and constantly adjust your practices (e.g., hiring, onboarding, training, evaluation, promotion, recognition, etc.).

There’s a whole sub-industry dedicated to just this: Employee Engagement Assessments or Cultural Assessments can be a highly analytical and technical field, where consultants sell fancy power-points displaying your company’s answers to a set of pre-packaged questions compared against thousands of other companies. These look glamorous, but like most consulting projects, represent a lot of work for a small amount of value. I would argue that instead, you want an answer to 3 questions. Poll your employees for answers to these questions early and often, and you’ll have a good read on how your corporate culture is evolving:

  1. A friend asks you what it’s like to work at your company. What stories would you tell to describe it? Specifically, what behaviors (either by you or by colleagues) come to mind?
  2. Think of the rockstars at your company – those who clearly outperform the average colleague. What differentiates them from the average colleague? Focus on behaviors (e.g., asks a lot of questions about other people’s points of view) vs. innate traits (e.g., is really smart).
  3. If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about the way your colleagues typically act at work, what would you change?

Note that in the above, I’m not asking anything about making the job more enjoyable or rewarding. There’s a place for measuring how much people are enjoying their work, or how they’d rate their employee value proposition. But that’s not to be confused with a culture assessment. The above three questions are about assessing how well the day-to-day interactions and decisions of your employees are aligned towards achieving your mission. Feel free to embed the questions above into a broader Engagement Survey, but don’t limit asking them to just once per year. The bonsai tree can change too much in that time.

FOT Background Check

Ben Olds
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!


  1. Chad Perry says:

    Like the out-of-the-box questions to assess culture. If only more CEOs understood that culture is just as important to bottom line performance as is the sales pipeline. Maybe even more so when calling for herculean efforts at critical performance times.

    And, just like an unwatched sales pipeline isn’t fixed overnight, neither is a neglected corporate culture.

    • Ben Olds says:

      I agree, Chad. Thanks for the comment. I think the challenge is proving the positive ROI on investing in the culture. It’s difficult – not impossible, but difficult. It’s tempting to focus on the impact on the bottom line of NOT hiring the fast hire who might not be a great cultural fit…or NOT sending your new hire to onboarding…or NOT taking action against the employee who doesn’t embody the values. It’s tempting to do these things in the short-run, despite the long-run dangers for the culture. In order to overcome those temptations, we need to draw a line for leadership between these incremental short-term decisions and the long-term benefit to the culture. I haven’t cracked the code yet on how to do that, and hence I wind up making emotional arguments instead of business ones. These only work some of the time. If I could draw the line more clearly between investments in culture and positive business results, it would make my job easier. Have you figured out how to do this yet?

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