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“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.”

-Tony Hsieh, CEO of


What’s the first description that comes to mind when you think about your organization’s culture? Exciting? Empowering? Enviable? Perhaps it sometimes feels like a three-ring circus or the inmates are running the asylum? Or even dysfunctional or toxic? I hope it’s one of the first three choices. I would even take “good but needs work” over the dreaded toxic. Because ultimately, toxic can kill you.

No, really.

Maybe you’ve heard of Enron or Zurich Insurance? Enron was the energy company that went down in a metaphorical ball of flames, as did its leadership, in the early 2000’s following the discovery of false financial results based on massive accounting fraud. It was a company culture built on arrogance and greed. The aftermath was a trail of suspicious deaths, insider trading convictions, jail time, finger-pointing and blame. The financial destruction was massive.

There is a 2005 movie called Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which documents the disastrous company culture and epic fall of the organization that was once named America’s Most Innovative Company by Fortune magazine for six straight years.

It rather makes you rethink “smart,” doesn’t it?

The events at Zurich Insurance are more recent, but as I learn more about the high stress Swiss business culture, no less alarming. Unlike Enron, there are no clear cut accusations of fraud or evidence of financial impropriety. What has made news at Zurich lately is the suicides of two top level leaders in the past three years.

Zurich Insurance’s Chief Financial Officer took his own life in 2013. His suicide note blamed the “unbearable work environment” which he said was reinforced by the company’s chairman. This might be dismissed as a sad and unfortunate personal tragedy where he ended his life for reasons unknown until the recent news that the same company’s former CEO also committed suicide just a few weeks ago. The former CEO, who had served on the leadership team with the deceased CFO, and was his friend and direct supervisor, left his position at Zurich in December 2015 after a “difficult time” for the company. His suicide was reported in May 2016.

A difficult time, indeed.


There is little likelihood of ever knowing exactly what led to both suicides. We all know that humans are complex, and sometimes irrational, beings who also have choices about where to work and how to live.

Although it seems like a stretch to blame the deaths on their employer’s culture, it also seems like Zurich needed to do some organizational soul-searching after being called out by the former CFO’s widow at the company’s 2014 annual meeting. At that event, in front of a room full of Zurich stockholders, she publicly stated, “unaccountability remains a part of Zurich’s company culture.”

Fortunately, there are a lot more examples of positive, encouraging work cultures than organizational death traps for the soul.

Contrast these two extreme examples with stories from places like Zappos, the online retailer known for amazing service and employees who are encouraged to have fun with customers. By all accounts, it is an energized and zany place to work.

Zappos screens new hires closely for cultural fit, and after a three or four week trial period working in the call center, offers newly hired employees $3000 to leave. They want their employees to be fully vested in the vision and culture of the company, and prefer to find out early if someone is not on board with the Zappos way.

There are many great cultures where people seem to love their jobs because they feel respected, valued, and encouraged to follow their interests and talents.

I particularly like the Netflix approach to culture and the employment of people. Their company culture is based on freedom and responsibility. One of their honesty questions, which they encourage employees to ask their manager or leader, is “If I told you I were leaving, how hard would you work to change my mind?” That must lead to some interesting conversations.

Netflix clearly states that they are looking for stunning colleagues and further, will not tolerate brilliant jerks. Now that’s honesty.  

If you want to change a company’s culture, it is necessary to understand and change what is measured and rewarded. Change what is talked about and how that language sounds, and the culture will begin to shift. It all starts with leaders who agree that change is needed. They must be willing to put in the time and effort to listen, set the example, and also the boundaries.

Every organization has a culture. Go searching for definitions on this website, and you’ll find that culture is “the personality of an organization.” It is also described as “the pattern of values and behaviors shared by its members.” If you really boil it down, an organization’s culture is how things get done, what is rewarded and what actions and behaviors are encouraged and tolerated.

So how do you get culture “right”?

And why should anyone care? After all, relatively few of us expect to become C suite leaders at large international companies where top positions and million dollar bonuses are on the line with each quarterly report of earnings. Don’t we go to work to get our work done, collect our pay, and look forward to the next long weekend or vacation?

Yes, and no. If you review the research on what we want from work, money and prestige are not at the top of the list.

You will not find stress on that list, either. At the top of the list in fact, is purpose. People want to make a difference and feel that their work has some significance. We also want the following (from

  • Goals and responsibilities
  • Autonomy and flexibility
  • Attention and respect
  • Opportunities for growth
  • Open-mindedness and transparency
  • Compensation

I would also argue that we want to be part of a successful team where there are opportunities to learn, explore our potential, laugh, serve others, and inspire or be inspired by our coworkers.

We want to work in places where the stated values and behaviors are congruent and consistently lived at every level, and are not just words handed down from the board and senior management.

After all, even Enron had values statements posted in the lobby that espoused the following:

Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence

Ironic, isn’t it? Obviously, the words are not enough. Culture is lived, modeled, and owned, day after day, in the best organizations. These are places where employees are valued, the engagement can be felt and observed, and continuous learning is encouraged. I hope you work at one of them. I know I do.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to know what you think. 

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Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at



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This is so timely! I'll be helping a team with some of this work. Great article!
M. Gagnon


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