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Company Culture: Defining, Building and Maintaining It During a Crisis

Nick Bogacz
Nick Bogacz

Businesses that have a well-defined and sustained company culture will be the ones to survive the COVID-19 crisis – and others that may arise.

It's a typical interview, and a business owner asks the would-be employee, "Do you think you would be a good fit with our company culture?" Or maybe the interviewee, given the chance to ask a question, chimes in, "Can you tell me a little about the culture?"

With the attention we pay to "culture," you'd think we were all amateur anthropologists. But there is a reason it plays a significant role in how we think about businesses today. Identifying and understanding your business culture strengthens your company internally and externally. In fact, companies with happy employees outperform their competition by 20%.

Sure, happiness is subjective, but the point is that a cohesive group sharing similar values and working well together leads to greater success – and makes it more likely that the business will survive in hard times.

We're seeing this now during the COVID-19 crisis. While lots of factors are out of their control, many businesses that defined, built and maintained their cultures are still standing. That's the case at my business, an award-winning pizza restaurant chain. Limiting our services to takeout and delivery when Pennsylvania shut down most businesses was not easy – and that's an understatement – but we've been able mitigate our losses and keep up employee morale as best as can be expected in a pandemic.

Defining it

When you're talking about culture, there's a big question: What is it?

This is a twofold question. Not only are you defining what your culture is, but culture in general. Not to get too academic, but dictionary definitions typically break it down to the social norms, institutions, arts, rituals and values of a given nation or group. This fits well into how we might think of a business culture – a collection of beliefs and customs that shape your organization. You might say it's the personality of your business.

That means, perhaps unlike individuals, you can build your business's personality, or culture, into whatever you wish. Buttoned up and professional? Family-friendly? One big party? You can define the culture any way you want, but as a best practice, it should be a good fit for the audience or customer base you are trying to reach.

For our company, our customer base is largely families – but really, it's anyone looking for a good pizza. Part of the way we attract that group, and thus part of our culture, is by highlighting the multiple national and global awards we've won for our pizza. We're champions, and we're a team. That all plays into our culture among the staff and what we show externally.

An important note on defining your culture is that it's ever-changing. As our business grew from one restaurant to two – and now five, with a sixth opening soon – our culture evolved. At first, we perceived ourselves as a scrappy, close-knit underdog family. By the time we had multiple stores and over 100 employees, we couldn't really be a family anymore (at a stretch, we were becoming one of those families with East Coast and West Coast branches keeping in touch by phone). Our culture was torn and had to change. Maybe one day it will again. For now, we're champions.

If you need help defining your own culture or want to go a little more academic, some University of Michigan researchers broke down four basic company culture types: clan, adhocracy, hierarchy and market. These vary in their emphasis on competing sets of values: flexibility and discretion vs. stability and control, and internal focus and integration vs. external focus and differentiation.

  • Clan: Focused on mentorship and teamwork, the company feels like a family. It's difficult to maintain as you grow (who does that sound like?).
  • Adhocracy: Risk-taking innovators, these companies are on the cutting edge.
  • Market: Prioritizing profitability, they are externally focused and goal-oriented.
  • Hierarchy: It's all about structure and stability, getting the job done the way management wants it done. This is most common in corporate America.

Importantly, you don't need to be any one of these specifically. You might be a mix (we're something of a blend of clan and market). But understanding where you fit will help you in the next step.

Building it

Culture takes buy-in from your staff before it can develop. If you want everyone to adopt a certain mindset, you have to know they believe in it. It comes from the top down, so your leadership team, employees and future hires must match the values of the culture you want to create.

Say your culture, like ours, is focused on the concept of being a champion. You want your leaders to be competitive and focused on winning, be it against business rivals or at industry events. This is where those interview questions come into play, but you may want to make them more complex than "Do you fit the company culture?" We might ask a general manager candidate more detailed questions, such as if they can meet goals quickly, if they are competitive or if they have experience being a member of a team. If the answers are yes, we know they are likely a closer fit with the culture than someone who says no.

That doesn't mean you want to hire yourself over and over. Remember, culture is about shared beliefs and values, not shared skill sets. Hiring a group with diverse talents makes delegating duties easier and fosters creativity.

With the right team in place, it's important to set up goals or events that promote the type of culture you want to be. Beat a sales mark (market), set a deadline for a new project that will shake up the market (adhocracy), host an employee brainstorm (clan), or establish an accountability chart (hierarchy). Doing enough of these types of activities that fit into your desired culture will ingrain it in your employees.

Outwardly, you'll want to find ways to align your advertising, marketing and, particularly for B2C companies, customer experience with the culture. Tie the company's internal mindset to its public persona.

Maintaining it and surviving

Now is when you rely on culture. Not only is the pandemic a health crisis, but it has thrown the economy into turmoil and sent the unemployment rate skyrocketing. Companies with a recognizable set of values and a personality that employees believe in and the public trusts will better weather this storm.

Whatever culture your business adopts, communication is key. During the lockdown, we kept regular lines of dialogue open between upper management and employees, whether they were furloughed or not. They are still part of our championship team, after all (or clan, if you want to get technical).

We also shared our process and updates with customers regularly, communicating that our championship products and service were still available, and emphasizing that we were still the same caliber of restaurant they expected. Certainly, we experienced a decline in sales, but nothing as bad as might have been expected during the early, uncertain days of the crisis.

By communicating value and doubling down on our principles, we're still standing tall as our region reopens its businesses. Businesses with other cultures did the same: Innovating adhocracies came up with useful solutions, strong hierarchies projected stability that the public could rely on, and markets shifted their competitive instincts to quickly find ways to lift communities. Culture gave them the inherent skills to survive.

We've talked a lot about just what defines a workplace culture, but I'll add one more explanation from executive coach Alan Adler: "Organizational culture is civilization in the workplace." And without a civilization, we'd certainly crumble.

Image Credit: LanaStock / Getty Images
Nick Bogacz
Nick Bogacz Member
I'm the founder and president of Caliente Pizza & Draft House, a Pittsburgh-area restaurant with five (and soon to be six) locations. I've been in the pizza industry for 25 years, starting as a delivery boy (who wrecked his car on his first ever delivery) and working up to management before starting my own business. We found our niche in a crowded market by becoming THE place to go for craft beer in the Pittsburgh region, but lately we've become known more and more for our pizza. Our "Mee-Maw" pie won Best Pizza in America at the 2019 World Pizza Championships.