Culture comes last!


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Can a company build a culture without being successful?

How does a company build a good culture? Is it the decision of a handful of people in the boardroom? Do a few words on a piece of paper define the culture of a company? Can a template be created for every employee to follow? Is it really that simple to build or change the culture of a company? Then again, what is a company’s culture?

These are questions at the back of the mind of every corporate leader. Let’s answer the last question first by using the wikipedia definition: ‘Corporate culture is the pervasive values, beliefs and attitudes that characterize a company and guide its practices’.

And how does a company come about its values, beliefs and attitude?

Take a historical look at culture through the ages that are appreciated in any society of any period. The one thing that stands out in each of them is – prosperity. Every culturally refined society has been a prosperous one.

But were these societies well cultured and so became prosperous, or did their culture evolve in tandem with their prosperity? History mirrors the fact that societies that stayed uncultured did not prosper; and if they inadvertently did, it was not for long. Societies that began to prosper evolved their own set of values, beliefs and attitude that helped to sustain their prosperity. This took time and it was not an overnight phenomenon.

Culture is the refined output of perseverance over a period of time.

In business, it is the perseverance to work ethically, to manage decorously, to hire suitably, to align processes for optimal results and, most importantly, to single-mindedly focus on the customer’s wellbeing, and possibly more parameters, that gives direction to make a company prosperous. The more prosperous a company gets, the more convinced it is to its way of doing business; and higher the conviction, the more dogged is its resolve to persist in this vein.

Success instills confidence to continue business in the way that has brought about the flush of success and this rhythm of doing business grows exponentially within the company. Over time it is ingrained in every employee, process and finally the fabric of the business –transforming into the culture of that company; a culture everyone is proud to be associated with.

Businesses that cannot attain or sustain success, struggle to build their corporate culture. They are stuck in the quagmire of their internal chaos arising from various strategies and efforts aimed at trying to make the business a success. It is also reasonable to say that successful companies that don’t focus on building and evolving their culture will slowly but surely loose employees and customers, and can be faced with an untimely demise of their business.

Culture evolves with success and thrives on prosperity. It germinates from successful conducts that become a norm and morph into the culture of the organization. 

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Sunil Panikker
Sunil Panikker is a business consultant specializing in customer service, operations and business strategy. He has honed his expertise over 30 years of experience, working in senior management positions, with companies having global footprints, and responsibilities that have been cross-functional & multi-locational. His blog shares the experience and expertise assimilated from managing customer experience across multiple diverse industries.


  1. To paraphrase a famous line from the movie, Jerry McQuire, “You had me at ‘last.'” The title of your blog suggests that a culture (the collection of beliefs, attitudes, values and congruent practices) is created over time as a reflection of prosperity–sort of a long term evolution that favors the fittest. While it is hard to argue with the birth of culture, it is not true (based on my experience) that culture is last–a mere reflection rather than an first initiative; a byproduct rather than a deliberate response to leadership committed to changing the course (and culture) of an organization. I have worked with too many organizations that recognized their current culture was ill suited for where they needed to go (and who they needed to become) and pursued a conscious, thoughtful change management course to alter it. They started with “culture change” as a vital and primary part of a long-range strategy for competitive advantage that would contribute to long-term success. While changing the hearts and minds of employees can take years (not days), it can be done, has been done, and can be successfully sustained long term. Or, did I completely misread your blog, thrown off by the provocative title?

  2. It’s challenging to support this perspective. Culture is not a chicken and egg issue. Product/service desirability and value must, at the outset, also be provided by a customer-centric culture, customer-centric processes, and customer-centric employees – else they cannot long succeed.

    Here’s some of what I said about it (a CustomerThink blog from a couple of years ago, taken from my 2014 book, “Customers Inside, Customers Outside”):

    “Customer centricity is a strategy to fundamentally align a company’s products and services with the wants and needs of its best customers and those which can readily be bootstrapped (through research segmentation tools such as advocacy level) to become more financially attractive. It is about identifying the most valuable customers and then doing everything possible to bring their (positive and negative) ideas into the center of the enterprise, create value for them, generate revenue from them, and to find more customers like them. That strategy has a specific business outcome goal: more profits for the long term. This objective is one that every enterprise would like to achieve; and, it can be attained if an organization is willing to move past outdated ideas about customer-company relations and rethink organizational culture, processes, and value.

    Building and sustaining a customer-centric culture is core to successful enterprise performance. However, once the basic architectural and engineering components are functional – or, in concert with their functionality – organizations must make certain that their strategy and tactics for optimizing customer experience, and downstream behavior, are both contemporary and effective. This includes elements of branding, messaging and communication, and maintaining strong, proactive value-based relationships, as well as optimizing employee behavior.”

    Culture does, indeed, evolve; however, it is not so much based on success (we’ve worked with a lot of clients that, at the outset of our consulting relationship, were marginally successful) as it is the enterprise-level desire and focus to move beyond process-centricity and product-centricity and optimize customer experience and customer value.

  3. A very thought provoking post Sunil. Like my esteemed colleagues, I am not very comfortable with the title of your piece. I also do not agree that culture thrives on prosperity. There are many organisations who fit exactly into the Wikipedia definition of ‘culture’ – ‘Corporate culture is the pervasive values, beliefs and attitudes that characterize a company and guide its practices’ – none of those words mention the word ‘prosperity’. I have been recently working with an organisation that has a phenomenally strong culture. The company and its people believe so much in what they do, they are almost embarrased by their passion for it. They are so authentic; so genuine; in everything they do, that they should be embracing their cultural values, not hiding behind them. The reason I mention this company, is that it is one that has been around a long time. Its culture was defined by its founders. It has never made a huge amount of money – that is not why the company was created – they are not driven by money. They thrive because of their passion and beliefs – and for that. they are a shining example of others.

  4. I think Sunil has a good point. While it is certainly possible to have a strong culture without success, I wonder how a company will keep its culture intact.

    Of course, “success” could be defined in non-monetary terms, as Ian noted. Even “prosperity” can be taken to mean wealth, but also other factors including happiness and health.

    I prefer to think of culture as “how we do things around here” — with the emphasis on the “do.” If there is no behavior to match the ideals, values, and beliefs, does the culture really exist?

    We judge people and organizations more by what they do than what they proclaim. If the actions (culture) of the organization don’t get positive feedback (success) then the actions will tend to change until they do.

    It is up to leaders to reenforce the culture they seek by recognizing and rewarding actions consistent with that culture, and discourage inconsistent behaviors.

  5. Chip, Michael, Ian, Bob – Thank you for your very insightful responses.

    Bob, you’ve picked up on my perspective of prosperity – it isn’t just monetary, but includes the sustained existence of values, ideals, beliefs and all else that goes to form the culture on an organization.

    Chip, I didn’t mean to imply that culture is a by-product. In fact it is the ‘refined output of perseverance’ over the years. Like you rightly say, culture is not static and is constantly being improved. Which is only possible if there is dedicated improvements to the way business is conducted in all its spheres.

    Michael, customer centricity is very close to my heart and I agree with what you say. However, customer centricity is only a part of a company’s culture. And to get whole-heartedly customer centric there is need for dedicated, engaged and loyal employees; the kind that are found in prosperous companies, rather than in those that are struggling or failing.

    Ian, the point you make actually corroborates my thought. Companies that have been around for a while have reached a ‘happy’ state of success (explained in an earlier blog of mine ‘7 Secrets to Success’). They may not be Apple, but they aren’t going a begging either. In the period that they’ve successfully been around, they’ve built a culture by constantly improving their business practices. It’s that ever-evolving culture that has seen them to their present day of success/prosperity. Goes without saying, with direction from the top.

    A company begins with a vision, develops business practices that align with that vision, makes changes and improvements as it grows and finally stabilizes with a culture that’s imbibed by every employee.

  6. Customer centricity is only part of a company’s culture? Ideally, it defines everything about a company’s culture.

  7. And that is an entirely different discussion Michael that I’d really like to have with you sometime. It also gives me an idea for another post. However, I digress.
    The question here is, can culture precede all aspects of business? Or does it emerge from the vision and manifest itself through appropriate business practices and ardent employee discipline and engagement, developing into a successful business? The growing success of a business epitomizes the right culture that evolves for that business.
    At the end of it all, success is measured by customer affinity to the business, and the company’s culture is reflected in that success.

  8. Every company has a culture, regardless of how new, old, successful or not. The culture is how people believe, think and most important (in my view, anyway) behave.

    I think the key question is how does a culture come into being. Leaders certainly have an impact, especially so in the early days of an organization. The people hired and fired, how people are paid, practices put into place, … these help define the culture.

    Can success or failure change culture? Of course. For a company that is winning the organization will see success as positive reinforcement that the culture is right, which will makes the ‘habits’ of people even more ingrained. Failure the opposite effect.

    But to say culture is the result of success is a bridge too far for me. I think there is a chicken and egg aspect to this, where culture and results influence each other.

    Michael, I don’t see how customer-centricity defines everything about a company’s culture. Even in the most customer-centric brands, surely there are many things that they value and do that don’t have anything to do with customers.

  9. Maybe “defines” is a bit too strong a word with regard to customer-centricity. At minimum, in the customer-centric culture, provision of value influences virtually all processes and decisions.

  10. That’s true Michael, value does influence processes and decisions. Yet, value is not the company’s culture till it manifests itself through the decisions and processes to benefit the customer, employee and company. Only when that happens does it slowly transforms into the culture of the company.
    Values that don’t benefit the 3 but persist, go on to form a company with poor culture, dis-satisfied customers and unhappy employees. We’ve all seen, worked for or consulted with such companies.


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