Culture Is a Skill, Not a Possession

A look at what culture is and how to cultivate it slowly, habitually, and communally

When a complex, messy, misunderstood buzzword like “culture” has become an issue, you need to look in unusual places for perspective. One place is the word itself. If we unpack what “culture” means, we gain can a better handle on how to shape and solidify genuine cultures.

Roots in the Land


Culture comes from the Latin word coltere, meaning “to tend” or “to cultivate.” It has agriculture roots. Today, we talk about cultivating virtues, skills, and teamwork as if they were crops.

When businesses talk about their “culture,” the word is vacuous by comparison. Judging by company “About” pages, culture is what marketers say a company is. Companies that lie tout their “integrity.” Companies that treat their customers like dirt talk about their culture of “service.” The real culture lies in actions, behaviors, and beliefs.

Based on the etymology, culture is supposed to be a long, arduous process of growth, filled with obstacles. The agriculturists who used that word in biblical times would have suffered from crop failures, pests, wars, and other hardships we scarcely can imagine in a corporate setting. Growing crops was dangerous, risky work.

Arguably, the word “culture” is incomplete without a cultivation process. An HR exec who thinks his company is “imaginative” or “unconventional” because he chose those words is deluded. I wouldn’t be a “pro basketball player” or “the world’s greatest CEO” if one day I got cocky and stated that I am. Culture without cultivation is a lie.

The Nature of Culture


The agricultural roots of “culture” give us some clues about what it is and what it is not. To be clear, I’m not attacking the value of words and communication. I think companies should declare their (real) culture. Rather, I’m suggesting that culture is a crop that has to be cultivated before you can harvest it. Culture is more of a skill than a possession.

If we think of culture as a skill, we can deduct some things about how it’s acquired and spread:

Slowly: Like shooting a bow or typing code, culture requires a high degree of skill and practice. It cannot be rushed, and attempting to ‘hack’ it can backfire. Culture might grow a lot slower than revenue, a user base, or VC funding.

Habitually: Culture needs high degrees of reinforcement. At my company JotForm, I try to instill a culture of kindness, creativity, and quick execution. If I don’t model those behaviors, no one will pick them up.

Communally: If you want to reach an elite skill level, you train in a community of like-minded people. Even in individual sports like golf, martial arts, and tennis, the best players train in great facilities with other top athletes and coaches.

By reimagining culture as a skill, we can see what it takes to make a genuine culture. Speaking from personal experience at JotForm, I can discuss how these attributes might show up in your business. I’m not suggesting you copy me, but you might model some cultural institutions on ours.

Slow Culture in Practice


The slowness of culture, the first quality, gets manipulated in young, fast-growing companies. When the next “Uber” of whatever raises $20 million in venture capital with an idea on paper, it has to spend that money. The investors want at least a 10x return on their investment. So, you get ‘industrial’ cultivation as entrepreneurs hitting the cultural crops with fertilizer and pesticides. The culture ends up being unwholesome and even poisonous to employees, customers, and equity holders.

I had the good fortune to bootstrap my company rather than take VC money, so we grew slowly by Silicon Valley standards. In fact, we didn’t hire anyone unless we had their first-year salary in the bank, and we still abide by that rule.

In part, we hire slowly because it protects our culture. If you hire five new employees in a company of 100, they get ‘accultured’. If you have 100 employees and hire 80 more in three months, they will form their own cultures and eschew the genuine one.

The Habitual Side of Culture


Culture ends up being a set of invisible norms, behaviors, and institutions before you ever capture it in writing. We discover culture in retrospect, which is why habits, not declarations, matter most.

The problem is that business leader can conflate ‘popular culture’ or ‘consumer culture’ with the behavioral kind. Think of a community like “hipsters” that, from outside, appear to have a culture. You might imagine traits that identify a hipster: moustache, skinny jeans, avocado toast, thick-rimmed glasses, record shops, etc. That’s a weak culture in if its dependent on appearances, and maybe that’s why no one identifies as “hipster” (or at least they won’t say it!).

Culture supersedes appearances and crosses what you might call ‘tribal’ zones. I could hire a practicing Muslim from Turkey and atheist from California, yet they could still share the norms, behaviors, and institutions of JotForm’s culture and work together brilliantly. Culture is what is left when we figuratively strip naked, leaving the consumer, popular, and fad cultures on the floor.

Culture in Community


If you want to absolutely, positively destroy a good culture, here’s what you do (I learned this the hard way, albeit under much less extreme conditions):

  • Cordon off your executives and long-term employees. Make sure they spend a ton of time together and not with new employees.
  • Make the BIGGEST teams you possibly can. If team members don’t know each other’s names and roles, you’re on the right track.
  • Hire and fire people quickly based on a performance metric that puts employees in competition. Become known for churn.

I start from the negative angle because it’s so common! Surely there’s someone in your life who feels unsupported, isolated, powerless, and fearful at work.

Under such conditions, the original culture of the founders or new leadership won’t transmit anywhere. The cultural leaders are barricaded behind gatekeepers; the teams are anonymous and unwieldy; the churn instills cutthroat culture and prematurely expel peoples who might ‘grasp’ the genuine culture.

So, do the opposite. Mix your top leaders and long-term employees into small, cross-functional teams and hire with a long-term mentality so that new people can acculturate in a community.

Deliberate Words


Culture is one of many words business people use incessantly without much attention to what it means and where it came from. By looking at the agricultural roots of culture, reframing it as a skill, and translating the skill mindset into actual practices, we can use and live the word more powerfully.

I suggest this exercise not just for culture but for any word that has become a thorn in your company. Terms like service, collaboration, connection, leverage, customer-centricity, change agents, ideate, drill down, etc. all have a lot of fluff on the surface but important ideas hidden below. If deconstructing culture can help us run better businesses, maybe all our buzzwords deserve a closer look.

Credit : HR.com
Magazine Name : Leadership Excellence, July 2018
Author name : Aytekin Tank
Aytekin Tank  is the founder and CEO of JotForm, the first and only full-featured online form building tool that is completely mobile friendly. JotForm allows anyone to create forms and collect their data, without writing a single line of code.

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