Shoe Sizes and Cheese

March 3rd, 2017

A guide to company culture

You have been kidnapped! You stepped outside for air at a New Year’s Eve beach party and friendly pirates grabbed you and carted you off to their ship for a trip around the world. You’re going to be gone for a year – with no computer or cell phone! Egads! What will happen to your company? When you are, at last, released, what will you find the first Monday back?

Imagine that you could see your employees before they saw you. Would everyone be working steadily? Would they have built the clientele? Would your team be serving your customers in the way that you would have done? Would net profit have increased during the year? Been stable? Declined?

Multiple leadership factors would impact the scenario above, but the one we’ll dive into today is culture. One good definition of culture is the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions.1 A strong organizational culture is much more likely to sustain and to achieve stated goals than a weak culture — even if its values are questionable (think the Nazi regime). Paradoxically, while a strong culture can sustain even in the temporary absence of a leader, it takes dedicated leadership to build the culture in the first place.

In any organization, the only factor that cannot be copied by competitors is the unique mix of people in the organization at any given time. Many leaders focus on the product or service offered – attempting to out-innovate or out-perform the competition – and this focus is essential; however, it cannot come to the detriment of the focus on culture. Every leader should be able to answer the following questions:

1. What size shoe do we wear? Think of a company as having a shoe size, say size seven.2 Size seven shoes come in a wide array of colors, heights, widths, styles and purposes – but they are, in the end, size seven. What shoe size does your company wear? Do you demand individuals of the highest intellect? Are you laid back and accepting of personality quirks? Do you expect extreme professionalism or intensity that includes long hours on a regular basis? None of these characteristics is good or bad, and each will attract certain people, but it is up to the leader to determine the shoe size of the organization.

2. Do our shoes match our briefcase (or backpack)? Imagine you established a casual, open environment where employees routinely displayed body art and jewelry, dressed in flip flops, and set their own hours. Now, let’s imagine that your company provided wealth management advice. Does your shoe size support your service? What if you design toys for young children but have a corporate office full of breakable displays and a benefit selection that does not include any parental leave? Will the best toy designers be likely to be comfortable there?

3. How (and how often) do we shine our shoes? The leader must be a culture champion and must enlist fellow champions in the cause. Instead, in a strong culture, every team member can, on demand, fill in these blanks:

a. Our organization exists because….

Profits are great – and even necessary – but they won’t build a lasting culture. We exist to make money rarely wins at the end of the day.

b. We benefit the world by….

Not only do most of us value a purpose, we value a purpose that adds value. (Say that five times!) I might like to design software anyway, but I feel even better if I realize that my software goes to businesses who help others have jobs.

c. My important job is to….

While we all do many things each day, we also have a few tasks that are critical to the organization’s purpose. Every team member needs to know these critical tasks and prioritize them first.

d. I know I belong to the team because….

Benefits are great, but it’s the traditions that matter. I have a client where the management gives out cheese at Christmas, and whether the employees like the cheese or not, being on the list to receive it matters. What is your cheese?

Leading is hard, and many leaders I know become overwhelmed, and eventually consumed by the job, but they do not have to stay there. Wise leaders know that one way to lighten their load is to share it – through a strong, self-perpetuating culture that supports their vision. What is your company’s shoe size? Does it match your product or service? Do you shine it up regularly and intentionally? And have you recently given out some cheese?

1 Source: Retrieved: December 18, 2016 from

2 Source: This analogy did not originate with me, but, unfortunately, I cannot remember where I first heard it. If it was from you, please let me know!