Cultivating company culture

Jan 07, 2024

Define and nurture a strong company culture by articulating a concise core purpose, aligning actions with values, and embracing consistency.

I love sourdough bread. The scent when you cut into a loaf and the tangy flavor can make me giddy. You probably know that those qualities come from the starter used to make the bread. Regardless of whether someone gives you the starter or you make your own, it’s essential for that perfect loaf. And they take work, because starters require feeding and attention to continue to grow.

The wonder about these starters is that they’re alive. They’re home to a community of bacteria and yeast microbes, fermenting the flour carbohydrates and producing carbon dioxide. Their labor makes the bread rise and gives it that wonderful tang. That base culture is essential to the baker’s success, but it results from intentional acts of care and attention. It doesn’t happen by accident.

Companies are like sourdough: The secret to success is creating and nurturing a great culture. My experience – and that of our firm – is you get to the heart of your company’s culture by first defining your core purpose. It’s why you do what you do, your shared purpose for being. That should be easy to state, but it takes real soul-searching to flesh out. When you hit it, though, you’ll know it. It will resonate with you and with your firm.

But how do you transfer that to everyone in the company? How do you keep it alive? Here are some thoughts:

  • Be clear. It’s critical to concisely articulate your core purpose and the values, processes, and behaviors your company uses in that pursuit. Share that information with everyone, then share it again and again. The essence of your purpose and values should be simple enough for every employee to be able to recite them. Please don’t add a bunch of words like we technical types like to do. Make it short, sweet, and to the point.
    When putting this information together, be sure to look at how you expect things to be done both internally with staff and externally with clients. If you wish your team to be responsive to their clients’ needs, define how that responsiveness should take place between team members and with other groups in the office. Remember this: your brand ultimately isn’t what you say you are. It’s what you do. My favorite definition of a brand is that it’s a promise kept. If you can’t keep the promise, it ain’t your brand.
  • Be intentional. Your core culture needs to permeate everything you do. It should be reflected – and recognized – with every interaction that every person has with your firm. Whether it’s your employees, clients, or recruits, all should see who you are every time. When you recruit, recruit toward your core purpose and values. Onboarding? Core purpose and values. Project management? Ditto. Employee life? Ditto ditto.
    By focusing the intention of everything you do on your core culture, it proves to people that it matters. That you believe in it. That you won’t compromise it. And in turn, that builds loyalty and respect. It’s an added value that your clients and employees will value, even if they can’t precisely put their finger on it.
  • Be consistent. The last time I checked, people were still humans. They have different ways of reacting and interacting. It’s OK if offices or departments have different personalities because that’s how people interact in groups. But they can’t have their own culture.
    At Wallace, we’ve been fortunate to grow significantly over the last few years, both geographically and in service offerings. We’ve made special efforts to understand the issues of those joining us and make sure that we’re letting them know who we are and what we stand for. We’ve engaged people across the company in updating standards, tweaking policies, recruiting, and more. But we’ve done it by embracing differences while stressing our common core. Consistency of messaging is a huge part of that process. Know thyself, and be able to affirm that.
  • Be bold. Every company is different. Every person is different. Successful companies with happy employees define themselves and proudly promote it. Find what makes your firm tick and embrace it. If, in the process, you find you’re not happy with something, change it. People want to feel like they’re part of something greater. So be greater. 

Brad Thurman, PE, FSMPS, CPSM is a principal and chief marketing officer of Wallace Design Collective, a professional consulting firm offering structural and civil engineering, landscape architecture, surveying and assessments. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.