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Why culture comes first

Richard Brown
Richard Brown is the director of Georgetown University Press, a publisher of scholarly books and journals.

For years our organization, a scholarly publisher, has prided itself on its employee-friendly culture. Our mission statement, after mentioning our products and finances, says we aim "to establish a culture of meaningful employment and professional development." Over the last several years, I have realized this mission statement has it all wrong.

Of course our products are important: they are the reason we exist. And naturally we must be financially responsible in order to keep products moving out the door and meet our customers' needs. But what has become clear to me is that creating a meaningful workplace should not be a third principle -- It shouldn't even be a first principle. Culture is much bigger than that. Principles can bend or buckle under the strain of a tight budget, but culture is the air we breathe. And without air, nothing else is going to happen. Culture is more fundamental than the products we sell, the state of our financials, and our aspirations. It cannot be compromised.

I came to this realization by three roads: rational, experiential, and intuitive.

Rationally speaking, I am convinced by the data that employee satisfaction directly impacts performance. In his paper "Does the Stock Market Fully Value Intangibles?," Wharton professor Alex Edmans demonstrates that companies listed by Fortune magazine as the "100 Best Companies to Work for in America" deliver returns that more double the rate of the overall market. I find that persuasive. And at the risk of immodesty I should add that our own organization, which last year ranked number three in Book Business magazine's "Top Ten Publishers to Work For," has a compound annual growth rate of 11% over the past eight years--a period in which many of our peers have experienced declines in sales. I find that persuasive, too.

My own experience is that when our employees talk about their most memorable experiences at our organization, it is not about winning industry awards or strong financial performance or even letters of appreciation from our customers or authors. Those are important, of course, but what our employees appreciate most, I think, are the many collective celebrations we've shared: The October afternoon we feasted on Middle Eastern fare and then wandered around the National Zoo; our staff trip to the Newseum, which followed a Mexican feast; our holiday outing at George Washington's home, Mount Vernon; the times we've gone bowling, or played pool and drank a few beers, or eaten pizzas with our student interns. And then there is our annual and justly renowned Halloween party, during the day, which culminates in a stroll around Georgetown in full costume. Those are the memories our employees cherish above all else. Those are the experiences that help define our culture, even more than the products we create and sell.

Finally, I feel the importance of culture myself. An organization that emphasizes its culture--not with lip service, but with dollars dedicated for professional development and a flexible workplace--is the kind of place I want to work in. It's more fun, it's more energizing, and it makes me look forward to coming into the office. Not every day is a picnic; we have conflicts and tough times like everyone else. But as the leader of the organization, it is my responsibility -- even my moral responsibility -- to ensure employees are respected, heard, and contributing to the team; that they are being challenging and are learning more and more every year. Because that's the kind of place I want to work, it's my job to help create that kind of environment for others.

Products and financials and aspirations are all part of the mix. But as I've learned, those principles should always serve the culture of the organization--never vice-versa.

By Richard Brown

 |  November 19, 2009; 8:45 PM ET |  Category:  Personal Leadership Journey Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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