There are two components to corporate culture; the fruit and the root of a tree. Travis Dutka, Culture Curator at 360insights, has developed this analogy to help explain and better understand the different aspects of corporate culture.
“The fruit is the part that everybody thinks they want. It’s the expression of culture, it’s the beer kegs, the Ping-Pong table, the popcorn, the after work socials. It’s the events, the shiny things,” explains Travis, “but the real roots of culture are the way things are done, not the things themselves. Often much more intangible things like, ‘what are your communication habits’, ‘do you have high levels of trust’, ‘is there passion and drive, in your teams’ or the sense of accountability”. They are things that are not as sexy and are much harder to measure and quantify”.
Travis has found that many companies, in an attempt to develop their corporate culture, will add a “party planner” type role to their company. However, if you do not have the roots to support this, it will not last over a long period of time and will not be able to weather the storms. “What a lot of companies do when they want to build a great culture or want to fix something that needs a little TLC”, says Travis, “is they try to put fruit on the tree that does not exist there or it isn’t native to that tree, or worse, they have fruit that’s really rotting so they paint it!”
In other words, if you decide to get a beer keg for your team, but no one really drinks beer, they will not appreciate it. Or if you create a mandatory bowling event when people on your team are not getting along, you will be resented for it. “If you’re only nurturing the fruit, eventually the tree will be top heavy and fall. The fruit won’t taste good and your team will resent it.”, explains Travis, “whereas if you focus on the roots, the fruit comes a lot more naturally and it becomes a lot juicier”. In addition, the fruit will even become employee initiated.
One of the biggest pitfalls however, could be perception. CEOs wear several different hats; they are often pulled into sales meetings, board meetings, operation meetings, etc. Then all of a sudden, they find themselves having forgotten to tell their team that they have hired a new VP of Marketing or changed where an entire team sits. There is nothing wrong or bad with the action itself – that’s part of the job of senior leaders, however, the mixed signals happen when the company prides it self on transparency or communication. Those examples erode trust even though there was nothing malicious about the actions themselves. “A lot of companies, when they have an issue with culture, it is not because they lack intention or desire [on behalf of the leadership], it is because of the perception that is created because of specific actions or inaction”, says Travis. “This happens all the time; it looks like someone is not living up to the company’s values, but it is actually just the way their communication style is received or genuine oversight. Because of the power of perception, especially in growing teams where there is more and more disconnection from the leadership team, it is so important to be intentional in the planning and delivery of how, what and when things are communicated to the team.
Focusing on building strong roots really helps to avoid the previously mentioned situations and keeps the focus on the important details. Building a great root system (company culture) takes work and pre-planning. “I’ve heard people say the best cultures are organic and they just happen”, says Travis, “and I think that is partially true. With great cultures, the fruit will happen organically and naturally. But taking care of the roots of culture is not by accident at all, it takes a lot of intentionality, especially in the tech/start up world because everyone is pulled in a ton of different directions”.
Travis was asked what his advice would be for companies forming their corporate culture. He said “clearly define what you want your culture to be.” In other words, if you want your culture to be innovative, then the decisions you make should tie into that. Even if there is an interruption like a paper plane throwing competition, your events should tie into your desired culture. “Don’t party plan just for the sake of planning events and over scheduling”, says Travis, “a healthy tree will produce the fruit on its own and the farmer should not try to put fruit on the tree. The farmer is only pruning the tree, cutting off the tree branches that aren’t doing well, picking a couple bad fruits, but for the most part the tree is doing it by itself.”