Why Culture Should Be at the Center of Your Organizational Vision

When Gordon Bethune took over Continental Airlines in 1994, it was the lowest-ranked airline company in the country. It had been through ten presidents, suffered two bankruptcies, and posted a $200 million loss by the time Bethune stepped in. Needless to say, he had his work cut out for him. With the company on the brink of collapse, Bethune believed that what most urgently needed to be changed was Continental’s culture. In the past, scaling initiatives were usually squelched before getting the chance to come to fruition. But perhaps the most stifling effort to unite the team on behalf of the former management was a nine-inch-thick book of rules—mocked throughout the organization as the “Thou Shalt Not” book and, with a more Orwellian tinge, “The Book.”

The Book was a visible symbol of what was dragging the company down. Continental’s corporate culture had stripped employees of the freedom to make decisions, take initiative, and speak out. So what was Bethune to do? The first order of business was to literally set the book on fire, a ceremonious representation of the end of the company’s “Big Brother” culture. Bethune wanted to show employees that they would now have permission to think for themselves.

Lo and behold, between 1994 and 2001, Bethune led one of the most impressive turnarounds in US corporate history and created an organization that began to not only scale up, but thrive. Until it was taken over in 2010 by United Airlines. Continental was an attractive target to airtarget to airlines driven by consolidation in the industry.

I find many organizations don’t think deeply enough about their culture when they’re in the process of building their vision, choosing instead to focus on things that feel somehow more concrete like revenue goals, growth targets, and being the leading something or other in the industry. Organizational scholars didn’t start paying attention to culture until the beginning of the 1980s, in large part because culture was often experienced as ephemeral, intangible, and unmeasurable. Culture refers to the taken-for-granted values, underlying assumptions, expectations, and definitions of the present in an organization. It represents “the way” and provides a prevailing sense of identity to employees. The culture is the living, breathing—and often invisible—part of what keeps the company aloft. So, as you can imagine, when researchers began to grasp that culture was the crux of organizational performance, it changed everything.

Now, culture is accepted as a critical determinant of success. Company culture isn’t static; it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised, trained, and changed as needed. A healthy company is not stagnant, so naturally a company’s culture has to grow and adapt for the organization to be able to keep moving forward. Without consistent maintenance of its culture, a company is at risk of ending up where the pre-Bethune Continental Airlines was—which is why culture is both a central element of vision itself as well as the framework for building one.

In my research and consulting experiences, I’ve found a glaring omission in organizations that claimed to have a vision but were not using that vision as a management process. The disconnect was apparent: the desired culture was never articulated. Perhaps the organization would go as far as posting a nicely worded statement in the office kitchen or corporate boardroom, but the executive group rarely held one another accountable for ensuring that “the way things are done around here” was consistent with their vision.

We often hear about strong and weak cultures in corporate jargon. But what do those distinctions actually mean? Strong cultures are those that support the organizational vision, those in which everyone agrees about the importance of specific, high-performance values tied to the vision. In these organizations, you can feel the energy and the collective drive for success. Weak cultures, then, are those in which little agreement exists. Like the former culture at Continental, the effort toward the vision is dissipated through conflicting agendas, blaming, and poor communication.

A culture is the human glue that brings people together and mobilizes them toward the vision. In order to understand a company’s culture, try starting with these four questions:

  1. What do we think is important?
  2. How do we think things should be done here?
  3. Who are the people who personify our culture and serve as role models?
  4. What do we do to influence people through our written and unwritten policies?

In the end, it all comes down to behavior—as I said earlier, “the way we things are done around here.” As the company changes, so will the answers to these questions. Nonetheless, the importance of the culture will never diminish.