Five Elements of Building an Organizational Culture

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner

At Zingerman’s, we are often asked, “How did you build this great group of people? How do you get people to care and have such a good time at work?

Basically, they are asking what the secret of our culture is. And, of course, there is no secret; there are a thousand things to make the culture what it is.

Still, most people are looking for simple answers. “It’s all in the hiring, isn’t it? Or “Do you think it’s because you’re in a college town? Sometimes, I jokingly tell them that it’s all in the Magic Brownies we make at the Bakehouse.

What Is a Culture? 
Here’s what Webster’s says. Culture is: a) the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.

b) the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.

c) the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.

d) the set of values, conventions or social practices associated with a particular field, activity or societal characteristic.

As we view it at Zingerman’s, the culture is the everyday reality of organizational life. Within that, all the Webster definitions apply. The culture is not the mission statement, the vision, your bank balance or the staff handbook, though all those contribute to creating it. The culture is what we do and say, the way we behave, the way we treat each other, our products, our customers, our community and ourselves. In essence, it’s the “personality of the company.

While speeches, grand plans, fancy training manuals, etc., have some influence on the culture, they are just as likely to have a negative as a positive influence. Ultimately, it’s what leaders do much more than what we say that makes the culture what it is.

Creating a Culture
There are only two main ways to build an organizational culture: either with consideration and conscious intent; or, by contrast, to let the culture come together as it does, giving it little thought in the process.

What follows is our recipe for consciously creating an organizational culture. Like all recipes, it’s not perfect. But, if you use it, you will radically increase the odds of creating the culture you want.

The formula for successfully building a culture of great service here at Zingerman’s is applicable to the building of an organization’s overall culture as well.

1. Teach It
The more—and more effectively—we teach people what we are looking for in our culture, the more likely it will become the reality. Whatever orientation and training work you’re doing, you should talk about the kind of culture you’re going after. Describe the way you’d like things to be working. Talk about the informal ways in which you envision the group working together, the way you want the customer experience to feel, etc.

It’s okay to teach about parts of the current culture that you’re working on changing. There’s nothing wrong with saying something like, “You may notice that there are people who arrive a bit late fortheir scheduled shifts. We’re working on building a culture that’s a lot timelier. My expectation is that you be on time as per the schedule regardless of what others may still do. I’m looking for you to help lead the way to making this cultural improvement.

One of the best ways to teach the culture is to tell stories. There’s something solid that resonates when people hear nice tales of how things were handled in a difficult situation, or how the organization has successfully progressed to where it is. There’s a substantive wisdom that comes from these stories, an experiential element of teaching that goes beyond the intellectual theories. And because culture is what’s happening, not just what we say should be going on, the stories resonate in ways that pure theory cannot.

2. Define It
If you have a number of leaders running your organization, you may not immediately have full agreement on what your desired culture is. In that case, there must be hard discussion amongst the key decision makers so that you can reach a consensus.

Putting the vision in writing is an essential element of making it successful. When the dialogue stays verbal only, it’s inevitable that everyone will leave the room with a different version of what was agreed upon. Documenting it is far more likely to help you get where you want to go.

3. Live It
Culture is very little about what we say, and very much about what we do. If we don’t live it, it’s never going to play out as we want. Organizational culture is built slowly over time, not with a quick decision or the writing of a big check.

This is especially critical for the leaders in our organizations; the staff sees everything we do. I remind myself that every action I take and every word I speak will have an impact on how our organizational culture develops. Pretending that my words, actions and attitudes don’t impact it significantly would be to live in denial.

(The influence of the leader is particularly strong in a start-up situation. Things are moving quickly, people are operating in close quarters usually under high stress and behaviors can have long and lasting effects.)

Some of the meaningful ways that leaders impact the culture include: • how well our words match our deeds • how we handle things when they don’t match up • which of our values we live and which we only pay lip service to • who we hire and who we fire • who we reward and who we don’t • the systems/recipes/processes we put in place • how we handle failure

How we manage difficult situations is one of the biggest contributors to the creation of organizational culture. It’s easier to build a culture when everything is going well. But strong cultures are partially built by what we do during hard times. When money is tight, how do we act? When a staff member is ill, how do we respond? When a good customer can’t pay their bills, what do we say?

What’s different about Zingerman’s culture is how we handle it when we don’t live up to what we said. By openly accepting that we’ve erred, acknowledging what’s happened, apologizing for it and then moving forward together toward the future, everything works more effectively. By handling problems in a constructive way, we are building the culture we want.

Ultimately, everybody needs to take responsibility to personally live the culture that we want to create. None of us will get there perfectly as individuals. But that’s where diversity is so great; if we can a) build a group/team that together embodies all the characteristics that we’re seeking and then b) actually handle that diversity with respect and inclusiveness not divisiveness, we’re moving toward the organizational culture we seek.

It is incumbent on everyone in the organization—not just owners and managers—to take responsibility for the culture we have and to make it the culture they want. The most effective organizations and the most solid cultures are where everybody comes reasonably close to living the culture, and can acknowledge constructively where they’re falling short and then actively move toward either getting better and/or actively supporting the others that are already doing it better.

4. Measure It
Once we’ve identified the key elements of our desired culture and written them down, we must measure our success in making them a (cultural) reality. Many will argue that you cannot measure things like fun or supportiveness or camaraderie; I think you can. If you want to have a results-oriented organization, you are more likely to succeed if you measure your success at putting the culture into place. If you’re setting out to measure cultural characteristics like “fun, remember that the judgment will be made by the participants in the organization. Once you have that mindset, along with some definition of what “fun means, you can measure it. Just have people rate how much “fun they had at the end of every shift and tally the answers. When you track those scores week to week, you can talk about what to do to improve your “fun quotient and then implement an action plan.

5. Reward It
A common problem in every organization is the mismatch between what it says it wants and what’s rewarded. In some cases, the issue is just an absence of rewards. Companies say that want people to treat each other well but those who do receive no recognition; they say that they want to have fun but the only reward you get is . . . you’re having fun; they say that they want people to learn but the only reward is that they know more than before a seminar. The situation can be more extreme—organizations that actually reward the opposite of the cultural behavior they say they’re seeking. They say they want to be generous, but they take for themselves first. They say that they want teamwork, but pay bonuses based on individual performance. No organization will ever perfectly align every reward with the behaviors we seek. But at least being cognizant of the key elements of the cultural vision we’re going after and then making sure that we recognize and reward those is important.

Please note that I’m not talking about money per se, though that could certainly be one way to reward people. But money alone will never do the trick. We need to use multiple methods in various settings; positive cultures are built over time and take a wide range of rewards and recognition.

Changing an Existing Culture
There’s no quick fix that begets cultural change in a matter of days, weeks or even months; it’s infinitely easier to rewrite a system than it is to change the culture of an organization. It requires tons of communication, years of stubborn persistence, relentless follow up, and probably a little luck. Fact is, you can never “get rid of the parts of the culture you don’t like. More realistically what works is to gradually build up the strengths around the less desirable elements so that the “problems become smaller impediments to getting to where you want to go.

The analogy I’ve come to work with is of the person with the English accent living in the States for a long time. We have one here at Zingerman’s: Jude Walton, one of the managing partners in our Mail Order business, has been living in the U.S. for 15 years. By American standards, she still has an English accent and some mannerisms that clearly would identify her over here as British, but over the years those have become less noticeable. When Jude returns to Great Britain, her friends and family lovingly accuse her of having lost her accent altogether. That same sort of slow but steady change is how it works in organizational cultures. So, how long does it take to change a culture?

What I’ve always been taught is that cultural change takes about a “generation. In the food world, one of the organizational challenges we have always faced is that there’s a lot more turnover than we might like. The good news is that because we have higher turnover we can make cultural change happen more quickly than it might in, for instance, the auto industry.

My rule of thumb for meaningful cultural change at Zingerman’s is that it takes two to three years to get something woven into what we do. I’m often impatient about how long it takes, but the reality is that’s just the way it is. By accepting that reality rather than fighting it, I can do a much better job of managing myself and of leading and supporting the change process. Three or four weeks into most any change, there still will be lots of problems and challenges; in three or four months the glamour of the idea of the change will have long since worn off. At that point, leaders need to refocus people on the long-term vision, to give encouragement and energy to get through the seemingly inevitable “zone of doubt and blame".

Handling Cultural Gaps
In my fantasy we deliver perfectly on our cultural vision all the time. We follow every system and recipe every day. We behave in ways that are in synch with our guiding principles.

The reality is that even the most effective organizations will have gaps between the ways they want things to be and the way people behave culturally. The obvious social example of this is the speed limit on the highway. Speed limit signs say “70 miles per hour, but everyone knows that the “real speed limit is that you drive as fast as you want unless there’s a cop. Cruise down the road at 85 mph (in Michigan, at least) until you see that dome light on the side of the road, and then you quickly sloooooow down! Take note, of course, that these aren’t outlaws I’m talking about. They’re well-respected and upstanding citizens.

Different Cultures in Different Parts of the Organization
If you have a business where people don’t all work together in the same space nearly all the time—either because you have different locations, a big building, extended hours or some combination of all three—you’re going to end up with different cultures in different parts of the organization. That’s not a bad thing in my mind. It’s normal.

At Zingerman’s, we certainly have one coherent culture across the organization even though we work in six or seven geographic locations. But you’ll find a slightly different version of that culture at the Bakehouse than at the Roadhouse or the Deli. And within each of those businesses you’ll find cultural variation between the various departments and shifts.

The key for leaders is not to fight against this diversity, but rather to focus on the positive. What’s our vision of the culture, and what do we need to do to get there? Given that we do not have a Stepford Wives sort of uniformity, which elements of the culture are most important? What’s the vision of organizational culture that we’re going after? What actions do we need to take to build the culture we have visioned?

Losing What You Have While Building for the Future
This comes up regularly with organizations that have created the kind of culture that they sought early in their business development. Leaders and/or key long-time staff worry about protecting their culture when growing. Although the concern is valid, I revert back to my image of organizations as people. You can worry (and appropriately so) about what’s going to happen to your kid if you let him out of the house. But at some point they will start going out. And you can’t—nor should you—stop them.

Of far greater value would be to back up to the beginning and start by teaching, visioning, etc. We cannot stop our organization’s culture from evolving. It’s going to change, and next year it will be different than today. The key is to avoid the negative vision—it’s not about what you don’t want to happen to the culture as the organization develops. Growth is a positive thing. The question instead is, “Given the growth that we’re going after and the way the world may change around us, what would the organizational culture of my dreams look like in five years? By writing down the vision of the culture you will create when successful, you are likely to get there.