Which came first—the people or the culture?

February 18, 2013 - by: Dan Oswald 0 COMMENTS

There is a lot written about the advantages of chemistry and great company culture, but what really are those things? A company is a social organization with rules that govern the relationships between people and among groups. There is a division of activity, and there is agreement regarding certain obligations of the various parties. This is true of all companies. So what causes one to have a culture that is superior to that of another?

In the end, it all comes down to the people. I have often said that the quality of the experience is equal to the quality of the people involved. Associate with high-quality individuals, and you are much more likely to have a positive experience. That’s true in business as much as in any endeavor you undertake.

So this brings us to a “chicken or the egg” type question. Do exceptional people create an extraordinary culture, or does an extraordinary culture attract exceptional people? Before you get too caught up in a debate with yourself, I believe the answer is both.

Exceptional people most definitely help create an extraordinary culture. I would argue that it often starts with one exceptional leader at the company. An exceptional leader can most definitely help attract other high-quality individuals. But even more important, a strong leader can create a set of values for a company that will allow it to develop a workforce that is superior to that of its peers. And those values and people are all part of the culture of the company.

But an extraordinary culture does, in turn, attract exceptional people. When a company has a culture that is truly special, people recognize it and want to be a part of it. When I think of a strong and distinct company culture, I immediately go to Southwest Airlines. The mission of Southwest Airlines is “a dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride and Company Spirit.” I would argue the company lives up to that mission extremely well. And I wonder how many people, after experiencing that culture as a customer, desire to become a part of it as an employee.

But there are some notable things about Southwest Airlines that prove my point that exceptional people create an extraordinary culture and an extraordinary culture attracts exceptional people. Herb Kelleher was a cofounder of Southwest Airlines and its first CEO. By all accounts, he was an exceptional leader who embodied many of the values that have become a part of the company’s culture. He was that exceptional person who helped create an extraordinary culture. But he also attracted other high-quality individuals who helped to develop and ultimately sustain the extraordinary culture.

Today, Southwest’s culture remains a crucial part of its story and its success. Go to the company’s website today, and it has an entire page dedicated to the culture. The company obviously believes an extraordinary culture helps attract and retain exceptional people and keeps the airline at the top of its industry.

So what does cause one company to have a culture that is superior to that of most others? I think it’s a combination of a visionary leader, a strong set of company values that are jealously guarded, and the right group of exceptional people.

And don’t underestimate the importance of company values and guarding them jealously. Creating a culture around a strong leader and his values is one thing. Sustaining it requires a disciplined adherence to those values beyond the tenure of any individual. That’s the hard part. Southwest has done it as the CEO mantle has been passed from Kelleher to others. That’s something to be envied.

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