Creating a recipe for success: how to build an intentional company culture

In order to be successful as a company, you need a culture that supports your values and motivates your employees. But how do you create this culture? Is there a recipe for assured success? In a recent Undutchables Expert Talk, business and culture expert Ligia Koijen Ramos dives into it.

Jasper Spanjaart on October 23, 2023 Average reading time: 8 min
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Creating a recipe for success: how to build an intentional company culture

In a recent Undutchables Expert Talk, business and culture expert Ligia Koijen Ramos introduced the In2Motivation mascot – a duck. Now, you might ask yourself, what does this water bird have to do with culture? Turns out, we can learn quite a lot from the simple duck. When you watch a duck swim, it looks quite peaceful and relaxed. The water remains still and the duck looks like it is just floating along, not putting forth much effort….until you look under the water and see it’s feet. Then you will notice that, although from above it looks like a perfectly effortless action, under the surface a lot is happening and the duck is putting quite a bit of effort into maintaining its successful trajectory. 

This is the same with culture. We often don’t see, or take the time to notice, what is going on under the surface that leads to our company culture. In working with companies Koijen Ramos has noticed the lack of intentional analysis of the organizational culture. “Sometimes I hear people say, why do I need to think about a culture? Because you have one already.” Culture has a huge impact on the success (or demise) of your business. A company culture will develop whether you do something about it or not, so it is worth putting effort into creating an intentional culture that will support what you stand for. As Koijen Ramos says, “This is how I see life, this is how I see work. We don’t need to look hysterical, we don’t need to be in a lot of effort, but we need to go with an intention.”

What is culture really? 

Before you can start creating an intentional culture, you first need to determine what culture actually is, and what part it is playing in your company. Koijen Ramos boiled it down to this useful definition, “In a very practical and simple way culture is: The way we do things around here.” 

‘The way we do things’ is influenced by our life experience and our underlying values. Koijen Ramos noted that we actually develop our natural values and culture at a very young age. “Some people will say,  “I’m always learning!’ I’m going to disappoint you big time right now. We stop learning most of our personal strategies when we are 5 years old. Until the age of 5 we are like sponges and we create strategies based on certain routines. After 5 years old we learn cognitively and intellectually. This is conscious learning. But our personal strategies tend not to come from our intellectual point, they come much before that. The come from the nucleus of our culture, and that is our values.”

Central elements of culture

Understanding the core elements that make up our culture helps us to be able to influence the culture. According to Koijen Ramos, the central elements of culture are: values, rituals, heroes, and signals.

  • Values – The underlying belief system that is at the very center of the culture. Values are at the heart of culture. They are engrained in every part of culture and influence or define all other cultural elements. 
  • Rituals – Practices that are created and developed based on the underlying cultural values and shared values. Rituals are typically repeated over and over again and can be conscious or subconscious. 
  • Heroes – Who we emulate and admire as a culture is built on our values and rituals. This can vary widely across cultures, and you can learn a lot about the underlying cultural values by examining a culture’s heroes. 
  • Signals – Signals are the visible result of the underlying cultural elements. These are often the words and gestures used, cultural nuances, or even traffic signs. Signals are very important because this is how the value system is communicated. If you don’t know the signals then you won’t get the message.

Creating an intentional culture

Now that you know the elements of culture, you can start thinking up a recipe for creating your own intentional company culture. And the first question you should ask yourself is: What is the culture that will most support my vision and lead to success?

The answer to that question is largely dependent on your underlying company values. Are these clearly defined? If not, then that is step one. In order to create an intentional company culture you have to have something to build it on, and, as we have learned, values are the foundation for all other cultural elements. If your values and vision are not clearly in place then the rest of your efforts to build a strong company culture will become vague and shaky very quickly. 

In the workshop Koijen Ramos stressed the importance of clarity and alignment when defining the values of your organization, “The value doesn’t serve anything if you are not able to determine the behaviors that you want to be seeing, hearing and feeling with that value. So, for me to create values, rituals, heroes, and signals and for this to become a practice, everything needs to be aligned and congruent!” 

Simple steps

Alignment takes time and effort, but here are a few simple steps that will help you along the way: 

1. Identify Your Current Company Culture

Koijen Ramos teaches that there are multiple versions of our company culture that are active at any given time, “ We have the assumed culture – that everyone thinks, ah this is the values, this is what is written there. Then we have the current culture – what is really happening. And we have the paradise culture – the ideal thing, what we are looking for, and wow, that would be amazing. And then we have the strategic culture….It’s important that before you go anywhere, you start anything, you really know what is the current culture.”

Making sure that you are aware of what is actually happening in your organization will make it more possible for you to determine your paradise culture and take strategic steps towards creating it. 

2. Create Vivid Values and Vision

Values can be difficult to communicate about and can often come across as vague, or inspirational but unattainable. So, make it tangible! Your values should be expressed practically – what does it look like, sound like, and feel like when someone is operating in this value as desired? What are the boundaries, rituals, and signals that go along with this value? 

Expressing your company vision in this way makes it clear to individuals and groups within your organization what the expectation and the practical application of the values will be. Because we all perceive things according to our own culture and life experiences, making your company values tangible and clear makes it easier to align and work congruently and supportively with each other. Plus, when you explain clearly people are more able and likely to get on board!

3. Daily Practices and Learning Moments

“In national culture this [rituals, signals, behaviors] will be learned, in organizational culture this will be a practice, so all of this needs to be transformed into daily practices,” Koijen Ramos says. If you have clearly defined your values in a tangible way, then it should be easy to translate them to daily practices. Create learning moments to help your employees get on board. You can’t just snap your fingers, or write a new beautiful procedural handbook, and expect the culture to go into immediate effect. You have to create learning moments and opportunities for the group to understand and apply the vision. 

It will take patience, but in time you will notice that your company culture is gradually transforming. As Koijen Ramos says: “Daily practices will become spontaneous when they become rituals, but in the beginning it needs to be a practice. Repetition, repetition, repetition.”

4. Align All Aspects of Culture 

Everything should be in alignment – your website, your trainings, your communication, your policies, your attitude – so that all actions taken support the vision and values you have set up. Not only does this help with staying organized, it also creates a trustworthy environment where employees and customers know what to expect. As Koijen Ramos says, “The lack of alignment creates distrust on the value.” 

As we have seen in recent trends, consumers (and potential employees) care about what you stand for and if your organization is trustworthy and transparent. Clarity, alignment, and consistency across your company culture will help you to achieve this, both internally and externally. And over time you will see that the attitude and behaviors in and towards your company will also start to align.

5. Creating Safety and Trust

Creating safety and trust in the workplace is extremely important to help your employees feel motivated and promote their success. Just as alignment and clarity can create trust in your companies values, there are other things that you can do to create a trustworthy and safe environment. “It’s important that when we are creating culture we always go for the frame of safety because that will create trust. If people feel safe they will trust.”

6. Creating Mental and Physical Safety 

Koijen Ramos has noticed that many companies forget to align when it comes to mental and physical safety, “What I see is that a lot of companies don’t really think about this. They don’t put this on the frame of culture.” They tend to think about some aspects of safety, such as procedures for hazardous working areas, but forget about others such as mental health or distracting working conditions caused by desk arrangements. 

All of these things have a large impact on the success of your employees and how safe and capable they feel in their working environment. Taking the time to assess the mental and physical safety risks and putting effort into creating better working conditions will have a positive effect on your employees and build up better alignment within your company culture. 

7. Listen to the ‘Outsiders’ 

You will most likely find individuals in your company who have complaints or improvement points that they are more than happy to share with you. Clearly there is something about the culture that they are not enjoying or engaging completely with, but they stick around. These people are golden! There is something in your company values that makes them stay even when they are not fully satisfied with how things are being done, which means that they will have a lot of great tips to improve your company culture. Asking these people what is working, not working, and what they would like to see done differently can give you great insights to help you adjust the culture in ways you might not have thought of before. Their ideas can help you to create more clarity and alignment and get more employees engaged with your vision.

8. Lead by Example

“Culture will change in two ways. The indirect way is with people, so you influence people and you work with people. The direct change for culture is with management.  You cannot change a culture just by telling people what they need to be doing. So, if you have new values, if you have new procedures, if you have a new communication flow or diagram, the first people to do this in a direct way is the management/leadership team. If someone in your leadership team is not doing this, you will have a problem with people. There’s no way out. It’s just like that because again we are talking about trust, and people need to see ok, we have this value and my leader is doing it. If they don’t see this, it’s easier for them to give up as well. It’s easier for them to say, ‘why me?’.”   

No one-size-fits-all

So, at the end of the day is there a recipe for assured success when it comes to creating your company culture? As Koijen Ramos says, “There is not one organizational culture recipe that will fit all the companies.” But there are some points that will guide you along the way. It really comes down to creating a tailor-made culture based on the values and needs of your organization. If you want to create and maintain an organizational culture that matches your company values, and that will support the team and vision you have built into the future, then you have to keep measuring, evaluating, and adjusting as you go. “We know that culture has a huge impact, and it’s not possible to be without a culture. So, even if you don’t do anything about it, you will have a culture in your organization.”

Start by defining values

There is a lot going on under the surface, and if you don’t take an active role the culture will determine itself and if you don’t pay attention you might end up with a company culture that does not live up to your values. Creating an intentional culture will ensure that you align the culture with the vision and that everything happening under the surface will support your success. 

Remember, start by defining your values and identifying what is actually happening currently in your organization. Once you determine where the gaps are between your current culture and your ideal culture you will be able to start taking steps towards change. You cannot (nor should you want to) change the culture on your own, it’s a group effort. So get your team on board and start implementing cultural change together. 

Are you curious about what services Undutchables has to offer? Take a look at their website or contact them.  

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Jasper Spanjaart

Jasper Spanjaart

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Editor-in-Chief and writer for European Total Talent Acquisition platform
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