You Can’t Copy Culture

I want our company to be just like Zappos!

No you don’t.

First, Zappos has a very strong culture, of which, most people couldn’t handle or wouldn’t like.  They hire very specific talent based on this cultural fit and desire to be in their certain culture, it’s not for everyone.  Now drink. Yep, that’s the new game sweeping the nation at HR and Recruiting conferences.  If a speaker says “Zappos” or “Google” you need to take a drink.  We might be HR nerds, but we party.

Second, you couldn’t replicate their culture even if you hired every single one of their employees and moved them into your offices.  You can’t copy culture. You can’t grow it again.  Culture is very specific to an organization, the leadership, the employee mix and time.

It’s not something you can just cut and paste into another organization. Believe me. It’s been tried about a million times and failed a million and one.

Remember when it was cool to hire folks from Disney because you wanted some of that Disney customer service culture in your organization? Yeah, how did that work out? You’re also not Disney. Or Southwest. Or some fun tech startup that plays ping pong and wears expensive hoodies.

You are you.  Stop trying to copy some other organizations culture and just do you.

Your culture is fine.  The people who are cancer to your culture are not. Get rid of them.  Communicate. Have an idea about where you’ve been and where you’re going and tell your employees.  Get them involved. Find out what tweaks their curiosity. Hire people who want to work for you.  No, not people who want a job. People who, specifically, want to work for your company.

I had a brilliant man once mentor me during a big merger between our companies.  I was young in my HR career and the company I worked for didn’t have a positive culture.  I wanted to change that. He told me that was useless.  He said we could change every single employee one by one, and would still be the same a year from now.

He said, “Culture always wins.” Good or bad, positive or negative. The culture you have will win. It will beat you.

Don’t fight the culture you have. Work with it, make it work for you.  Culture evolves, it doesn’t change quickly.  That’s your biggest problem. Too many leaders think they have the power to change culture overnight, but they don’t.

Leaders are like salt to culture. Salt exaggerates the taste of the food it is added to.  Leaders can add to the culture you have. They can make good culture even better, and they can bad culture even worse. What they can’t do is make bad culture, good.  Or, good culture, bad. An organization with a strong positive culture will beat a bad leader trying to betray it.

Don’t be discouraged.

You can keep fighting the good fight, just don’t get too down on yourself when you don’t see results right away, and don’t copy another culture!

7 thoughts on “You Can’t Copy Culture

  1. Thanks Tim – great words of wisdom. I find that too often organizations suffer from leaders catching ‘PCS” – post conference syndrome where they come back full of ‘new ideas’ to change our culture and everyone just shakes their head and says “wait a few days and this too will pass” and it is business as usual!

  2. Interesting position. I’m in agreement mostly, but I have to say that I believe the right kind of leader CAN influence bad culture and make it better. Not in the short-term, but they can influence it over the long-term. How do I know? I have personally experienced that cultural at two major fortune 500 companies. The key was leader/leadership–the amount of passion they had for championing the change– their willingness to (1) communicate regularly, (2) hold their direct reports accountable, and (3) Walk the Talk!

  3. Your article is brilliant and your thoughts although controversial to many others is right on the money. This may be one of my favorites because it hits on what people have a real hard time putting their head around. Well, for that matter I have been guilty of it as well. It is easy to fall into that mindset but the reality is exactly how you painted it. Great article. Thanks

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