What does culture mean to you?

Colin Ellis
3 min readNov 22, 2023

It’s a question that I start every workshop or speech with, ‘What is culture? What does it mean to you?’

Culture is being talked about more and more, which should come as no surprise, given that it is the single biggest reason for team and organisation success. Up until around 2010, culture was generally referred to as teamwork and employees were told what to do by managers. However, attitudes towards getting work done have changed and employees expect a respectful environment where they can bring their best self to what they do.

A recent report found that culture is now a priority for almost 70% of senior leaders (it was just over 50% in 2013). This is great news, but only if:

a) they know what it is;

b) they’re prepared to invest time, money and energy into it; and

c) they’re prepared to role model what good looks like.

Culture being a priority is one thing, understanding it fully is another entirely.

Senior leaders — including those in HR — often talk a good game about culture change, but inevitably resort to creating an excel workbook full of actions from an engagement survey and identifying senior leaders (those generally not responsible for day-to-day work) to action them. These actions will die a slow death and send the message to employees that their feedback wasn’t really wanted in the first place.

Just as bad is when organisations start a calendar or financial year full of promise. They make noises about investing in culture (often through learning and development programs) and use words like growth, evolution and transformation.

All too inevitably, however, the budget gets removed from culture initiatives (assuming that it existed in the first place) which confirms to employees that culture was never a priority and that senior leaders are going to wing it and hope for the best.

This strategy never works and high potential people will often leave in pursuit of an employer that does take culture seriously, where they are rewarded for their behaviour and their attitude, not their willingness to blindly follow dumb processes or accept poor behaviour from those who should know better.

So what does culture mean to you? Is it:

  • ‘The way we do things around here’
  • ‘Putting values into action’
  • ‘The observed behaviours when leaders aren’t around’
  • ‘The observed behaviours of leaders’?

Of course, culture is all of these things and much more. This nuance and inability to be able to put it into a neat box often means that leaders find it difficult to fully understand how to address the root causes. They inevitably settle on what they’ve done before: transformation programs, hiring consultants, further analysis… none of which are proven to work.

What does work is educating employees, so they can evolve culture for themselves. Sure, they may need support to get started and check-ins to keep them on track, however, if internal capability isn’t created around culture, then organisations will simply get stuck in a culture infinity loop.

I’ve worked with a number of organisations around the world to help them craft experiences that not only teach managers what culture is, but also how to build it and evolve it over time. One organisation saw its engagement score rise by 30% in three months because not only did staff have the culture knowledge, they recognised that they had the autonomy to do something about it.

When I wrote Culture Fix (you can get a copy here or wherever you get your books), I wanted to provide leaders and managers with the information that they need to fully understand the environment they need to create. Without this knowledge it’s easy to revert to culture initiatives that don’t produce any lasting change.

I now run free 40-minute calls (book one here) with organisations to help them understand where they’re at and provide them with the steps required to fill their culture gaps.

Ultimately, however, change is only possible if senior leaders are not only interested in understanding what culture means for them, but also committed to building it in the right way to provide its employees with the greatest chance of success.

Only then is culture seen as a priority and everyone takes pride and responsibility for keeping it that way.

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com