A Guide to Getting Your Corporate Culture Right


The way in which a business’s employees behave and uphold its values – both internally and with customers – can impact on business success. Over the past decade, businesses of all types and sizes have woken up to the idea that putting the right organisational culture in place is an essential cornerstone of success. But what exactly does this entail? Here's our guide to getting your corporate culture right:

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What is corporate culture?

A corporate culture can be defined as the way in which a business and its workforce demonstrate its values in a number of ways, including through its operations, decisions and interactions with customers. Organisations that have the ‘right’ culture are typically likely to gain significant benefits, according to Professor Blanaid Clarke, McCann FitzGerald chair in corporate law at Trinity College Dublin.

“There’s a body of research that says a strong organisational culture is beneficial to the bottom line,” she explains. “It makes for a stronger company, where there are less likely to be operational and ethical failings. The business is likely to have a better reputation, and to be a place where people not only want to work but want to stay.”

Identifying a corporate culture, Clarke adds, is a question of looking at the values a company has (or which it wants to have) and then establishing whether those values are actually embedded in the business – in the way it operates, the way people interact and the way in which employees are incentivised.

“Culture is what you can see from the people that you meet, from the policies and corporate statements you read, from walking into a building and seeing how people are interacting. It’s part of all of that,” adds Clarke.

Recommended reading: Leadership, Strategy, and Culture: The Holy Trinity of Modern Business

Measuring impact

Clarke says a range of problems that have come to light over the past 10 years at some of the world’s largest organisations – such as the motor manufacturers caught up in the diesel-emissions scandal – demonstrate how cultural failings can have a negative impact not just on customers but on wider society.

Since the start of this year, companies that are listed on the stock market have been required – under the Irish Corporate Governance Annex of the UK Corporate Governance Code – to set out their values and strategy, as well as to show these values are aligned with the organisation’s corporate culture. Clarke says that regardless of a business’s size and whether it’s bound by this particular rule, it’s an approach that’s well worth adopting.

“Culture is what you can see from the people you meet, from the policies and corporate statements you read, from walking into a building and seeing how people are interacting. It’s part of all that”

Professor Blanaid Clarke, McCann FitzGerald Chair in Corporate Law, Trinity College Dublin

“Culture is a reflection of a firm’s values and strategy – but it can also cause those things,” Clarke explains. “Bad policies, bad individuals and poor leadership can lead to a poor organisational culture. But a strong organisational culture can lead to strong leadership and strong policies.”

The starting point is for directors and senior managers to have a serious discussion about their values and their vision of what they want the organisation to achieve. “Hopefully, a lot of what they already see in their company will reflect that – but there may be changes needed,” says Clarke.

Staying on track

Having a vision statement that’s clear and easy to understand – for example, ‘customer first’ – employees throughout the organisation will find it much simpler to make decisions in circumstances where they might otherwise be unsure what to do.

Susy Roberts is the director of business consultancy Hunter Roberts, which specialises in human resources management and works with a number of firms here and in the UK. She says the culture of an organisation must be “meticulously planned, monitored and updated” to ensure everyone in the business understands what’s expected of them.

“It’s not enough to declare ‘this is our ethos’ and expect every employee to adhere to it,” Roberts says. “A culture should be as rigidly enforced as a sales strategy or growth plan; there must be no ambiguity among the senior leadership team about the direction in which they are heading.”

Recommended reading: Does Business Size Affect Employee Happiness and Culture?

Leading by example

Roberts says a company’s vision should be set out by the board.

“A strategy and actionable plan must then be developed that will allow the organisation to reach that end goal, taking into account the processes of each department, ensuring the cultural goals are realistically deliverable and identifying if and where coaching will be necessary,” she says. “The desired behaviours must be exhibited by all leaders, from the very top down. Those who get excellent results but in doing so make their team miserable and anxious need to be coached or managed out – there is no room for exceptions.”

Clarke adds it’s vital to ensure that values and culture are communicated and understood throughout the organisation: “Most decisions and most behaviour within an entity are the responsibility of people at the middle level and below: so they need to be clear what the culture is and what the purpose and values are. And they need to understand that if they adhere to the principles that have been set out by senior management, they will be supported.”

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