A Method to their Madness: Manifesting Company Culture in an Eames Chair.

Every company has a “culture” that defines who they are, and how customers, prospects, partners and employees see them, and how they react when they come in contact with an organization. Think of corporate culture as a series of character traits that are core to a company’s definition of itself.

Corporate culture is often formed accidently, but its impacts are strong. Whether you’re aware of it or not, “who you are” (as a company) impacts every decision you make—from the type of products you make, to the people you hire, to how people see you in the marketplace (your brand reputation).

Many people think “corporate culture” is defined by how big the lunchroom is, and how many times a year you take teams on company retreats; but it is far deeper than that.

In our personal lives, we call it “our personality” and define it by our core moral and ethical values, and see it demonstrated it by our daily actions. Sometimes we are keenly aware of our personality traits, and sometimes they need to be pointed out by others, but they are always present—and define “who we are” as a person.

Corporate personality or “culture” works the same way.

Every company has a company culture. You can uncover it observing behaviors and decisions, and then articulate them in things that are called “Brand Essence” or “Core DNA,” “Our Values” or “Our Purpose and Intentions.” Then it is a matter of making sure every employee, every partner, and every prospect and customer, can see your company culture clearly.

I often work with organizations to uncover and articulate their corporate culture. Many times companies say they want to “create” a company culture— but guess what, you can’t. It’s part of your DNA. You can, however, change the behaviors that you don’t like, or bring your company more in-line with your DNA. But you can’t “create it.”

Other companies don’t think they have a company culture, or can’t identify how culture manifests itself. I can understand this, because sometimes executives have worked hard to bury their culture. I once worked with a newly hired CEO who was trying to put his stamp on the company. After a cultural evaluation, I told him one of the core foundational elements of his company was the sense of “transparency”—an openness and honesty that was exhibited on a daily basis. He said, “Transparency? We can’t have that!” He was replaced by his Board of Directors within 18 months.

And sometimes, corporate culture can arrive in surprising places. Take the experience design company Method, who I’ve worked with (and for) over most of the company’s history. I’ve been a client, and a consultant to them, and Method currently contributes musings to THE FIVE. One day I asked Kevin Farnham, the company’s CEO and one of its founders about the choice of décor in the Method office. I found it pointed in its choice and consistent in theme. As a client, and an outside consultant, it seemed part of the Method brand—part of their company culture—a character trait, if you will.

Kevin was a bit surprised by my question, “The furniture? The mid century stuff?” he asked with a quizzical look on his face, “It was not that intentional. I think it was just a natural outcropping of the things I was interested in.”

The look of Method’s office fuses Bauhaus with a mid-century influence, with a bit of modern design thrown-in. Imagine a B&B Italian couch, next to Eames plywood chairs. The spaces are open, and have a mood-lit essence to them—trying to use as much natural light, and as little bright-fixed-overhead lighting as possible. In the San Francisco studio, there’s a DJ booth to control the background music vibe.

As I dug deeper into where this essence—this vibe, comes from, I discovered that it starts from Kevin’s background before founding Method. You see, Kevin worked in a lot of nightclubs and bars and did lighting design. “I’ve always been interested in creating experiences for people,” he said, “whether that was getting the right set of music in the right place, or getting the right set of people, It’s always been something that I’ve been interested in. 

I had just uncovered part of the company’s DNA. “Experiences” came from Kevin’s interest and background, and has been translated into his decision around the type of company he would start—one that would ultimately be defined as “experience design,” and into the physical environment he created in which he, and the entire company would “experience” on a daily basis.

“I think for people, especially designers, who understand the intention of Bauhaus, and understand that timeframe understand the intention of really clean communications, and really boiled-down things.”

The furniture, the graphic design and the product design during that timeframe have a specific aesthetic to which Kevin was drawn, and ultimately translated into the company he created.

“I really like the intentionality of what mid-century represents. I really try to resist the temptation of leading the designers in a direction with that sense of intention, and that sense of crystallization about modern sensibilities around typography usage and symbols and iconography in these sorts of things definitely are a thread in the work that we do. We hire people that I think naturally are predisposed to that.”

This is just one example of how a character trait—a personal interest, can manifest into a business, and into its employees, and into its environment. They’re the components that make up part of a company culture.

How is your company culture defined, and what defines it?

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