I love culture.

I don’t mean my love of art galleries, and sports – although I sincerely love those - especially soccer and museums (just ask my hubby who has patiently toured through many museums where I am compelled to read every plaque.)

I’m referring to the secret sauce of a growing business – the thing that can just as quickly sink the entrepreneurial ship, as help it circumnavigate the globe.

Culture is such a common element in business conversation now that I think the word often gets misapplied.

For example, we look at a tech business in a loft space with tons of young team members and a foosball table or two and we think of that as a “lean mean fast moving entrepreneurial culture”.

But culture can’t be observed in the location, demographics or trappings of a business. That’s no more helpful than looking at a person and judging their character from their clothing - say mistaking Warren Buffett’s disheveled look as a sign of his lack of influence.

Yup. That would be a mistake.

So, what is culture then?

It lives in the behaviours of the people, and the shared common values that guide those behaviours.

To learn about a business’ culture, you need to spend time with the team.

We have a fabulous client whose business culture sang out loud at their staff Christmas party last December. There was a decidedly family feel; everyone laughed a lot, the people from various teams and various cities organically rotated between departmental groups and teams, and you could tell that everyone really cared about how everyone else was doing.

It was not a homogenous group by any stretch, but there was mutual respect, joy, and friendship, and all that extended from the leaders down.

Our business experience with them is an extension of that sense of community and caring – they really lean in to take care of customers – they collaborate to solve problems, there’s a deep sense of loyalty and connection with their strategic partners. That generates a real reciprocity in support from the folks with whom they do business.

They’re a valuable client – but the impact of their culture on our business transcends any monetary value.

Their culture flows through their people into their relationships with our own team members. So much so, that when they needed us to solve a tricky problem, we took their challenge to heart and our team engineered a really great strategy which was a game changer for both of us.

It certainly is a pleasure and a privilege for us to do business with them, and their culture aligns well with ours.

As entrepreneurs, we consistently work with our teams on building great culture. It’s not just about creating fun, it’s not just about the right incentives, and it’s not just about aligning work with skills. Don’t get me wrong, all those matter, but if you don’t care about the people, and cultivate and nurture culture intentionally, the wrong things can begin to set in.

Tolerate a culture killer, and you’re heading for disaster.

Imagine your team is working really well. You need to fill a role, and you choose a person with the smarts and the skill set, but not the right values. The team tries to adapt, but ultimately, it creates chaos in the crew’s quarters. No one is sleeping, focus is disrupted and peoples’ attention starts to wander. Trust is broken, people start looking out for themselves instead of the team – that’s natural human self-interest.

Here, you’re sure to end up off course, or if you ignore it too long, in a shipwreck. Trust me, I’ve been there. It’s not the bad hire that will wreck you – it’s not being willing to off-board at the very next port.

And a hollow, fractured culture also means that people aren’t inclined to pull together when the storm strikes.

Teams don’t lean in hard just to deliver value to the bottom line – and the best incentives fall flat without a sense of both individual, and collective purpose and connectedness. That’s where the culture comes alive and breathes air into those oh so important sails.

So for the best journey, check your culture when you’re marking out your map – one can’t thrive without the other.

** And if you know how to use a sextant, that could come in handy too. **