birds on a wire

Fact: companies have personality, norms, habits and desired behavior. You know it the minute you walk in the door. Smart companies turn this into a priceless asset — something that draws talent and customers. It doesn’t mean you have to be quirky (Zappos) or funny (Southwest Airlines). It does mean you have to be true to yourself.

Let’s look at Southwest Airlines. Co-founder Herb Kelleher sketched out the idea for the company on a cocktail napkin, and infused the organization with values and behavior he believed in. Wikipedia describes Kelleher’s influence as such: During his tenure as CEO of Southwest, Kelleher’s colorful personality created a corporate culture which made Southwest employees well known for taking themselves lightly — often singing in-flight announcements to the tune of popular theme songs — but their jobs seriously. Southwest has never had an in-flight fatality. Southwest is consistently named among the top five Most Admired Corporations in America in Fortune magazine’s annual poll. Fortune has also called him perhaps the best CEO in America. Kelleher was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2004.

On the far side of Southwest is 3M, founded in 1907 and still vibrant today. They refer to having “A Culture of Innovation” and they mean it. Engineers are given 15 percent of their time to work on any project they like, and the company does everything it can to encourage employees to think about what is possible. That they quote Albert Einstein in their culture video (“Logic takes you from A to B. Imagination takes you anywhere.”) gives you a sense of what this huge Fortune 100 company thinks is important.

So who are you? And who do you want to be? There’s more to building a strong corporate culture than just listing your company values on a Web page. Everything in your company — from your company brand to your pay practices to how your senior leaders act — reinforces (or undermines) your culture.

Guess what? You already have a corporate culture. The question to ask yourself is how do you make it an asset?