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Business Culture: Is it the secret sauce?

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Culture is something you decipher

Most people have work that is too small for their spirits! Studs Terkel.

I meet with a group of Business owners and CEOs regularly, and the topics of employee recruitment and retention are often front and centre. All have challenges in this space. Business culture is often the topic of conversation. As the conversation evolved, one group member articulated a question that often comes up:

What is the secret sauce?

In other words – what are the variables or cornerstones of a business -(organisation) culture – where the employees are:
• Queuing up to join
• Wanting to perform well every day

• Staying for an extended time.

This question has haunted me for my whole working life and even more in the last few months, so I am writing this.

In the mid-1970s, I attended a Professional Development workshop. It was a crucible learning experience. I discovered a new paradigm of human development and learning. It was transformative! Work in this paradigm came with a whole new meaning. As I reflect, it was a liminal moment in my life – until then, I had spent my life performing modestly – academically – and in the sporting arena – work filled in time between my sporting ‘career’ and my social life….And I was about to be married! We all know the sort of reflection it brings.

This new paradigm – Was it a secret sauce?

Some might argue that since that day, I have never had a job – every day has been a step in a journey – in the furtherance of my mission which I discovered in that workshop. At the simplest level, it was (and still is) to make a positive difference in the lives of those I meet daily. There are multiple extensions/versions over time.

In the early 1980s, as a management consultant with limited experience (6 years), I was speculating with a few colleagues on the next ‘fad’ in consulting. I can’t remember what we discussed, but I know culture was not one. Few knew the term in a business context, and THEN in 1984 … IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE by Peters and Waterman was published. The nature of the conversation about business and organisations changed. As well as introducing the 7S Model (see below), it said:

“Without exception, the dominance and coherence of culture proved to be an essential quality of all the excellent companies.’ P75 In Search of Excellence.

It was one of the first business books available in airport bookstores! It was the start of management/business/leadership as a popular book category, and it changed the way management thought about business in many ways.

The McKinsey 7S framework became a critical management tool for every consultant if not business manager.

McKinsey 7S

One learning which emerged from that period was:

1. Each of the critical elements was important – and even more important was:
2. The relationship between the elements.

Culture in organisations became THE FAD.

In a world where management consulting was nascent, it emerged as an essential and ubiquitous tool – one consulting firm (now defunct) produced a packaged program called Changing Business Culture (2 days?) and sold it as a solution to businesses. The consultants to the business trained all the managers in the discipline of “culture change”. There was much to learn! At this time, the ubiquitous MBA was a new phenomenon, with only few graduates!

In 1985 one major Australian Statutory authority – Telecom (80,000 employees) -now Telstra – launched a mega cultural change program, VISION 2000 – the agenda was to change the culture to be more customer focussed. A part of the program was the adoption of three CORE Values:

• Customers come first.
• Business success builds our future.
• Our people make it happen

In my experience, the world has evolved, but the questions are the same –and culture is never far from the top of business priorities. Over the next 40 years, hundreds of popular business concepts, business books and business authors have written about leadership and culture.

Management consulting is a substantial industry – so powerful that Marianna Mazzacato recently wrote a book highlighting the damage it has done to business worldwide!
Many concepts and tools have emerged and are currently used to solve today’s business problems.

• Organisation Development (Human Potential)
• Management Training and Supervisory Training
• Leadership Training
• Strategic Planning v1 Drucker
• Management by Objectives
• Productivity Improvement
• Performance Appraisal
• Culture Change
• Learning Organisations
• Strategic Planning v2 (porter)
• Balanced Scorecard
• ReEngineering
• 6 Sigma
• Creating Value – Value Chains – Value propositions
• Building a GREAT Business
• High-Performance Organizations
• Agile
• Leadership
• Purpose

Every Business leader – Management consultant will have their list (or sets of ideas and tools); some might have even used the term ‘secret sauce’ to describe their solution or product!

What is the ‘secret sauce’?

In discussing this with a very successful business owner-entrepreneur in the last few days, he was amazed and said spontaneously – indeed, they should know that!

“In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . . .”

This rule of conduct summarises the Christian’s duty to his neighbours and states a fundamental ethical principle.

Then we discussed another definition:

• A unique quality that makes something successful – Might be uniqueness.

In a similar conversation with another entrepreneur in recent weeks, he said, “always leave something on the table for the next person” – in other words, don’t be greedy!

It reminded me of a story from my ‘apprentice’ consulting career. I mentioned the workshop earlier, where I discovered a whole new world – Organisation development – where I found a new way of seeing the world. As it happened, I was working on a project focussing on Performance Appraisal – a relatively new concept in business organisations. The learning from the workshop was profound as I discovered several concepts –

teamwork, job design motivation and stress management; there were things called intervention strategies and personal awareness – it was all a complete revelation to me.
I returned to work full of the joy of “indoctrination” and was explaining to my ‘mentor’ in the days before mentors what I had learnt, especially the stuff about Job Design.
• The five core characteristics of job design are skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and job feedback. Including these characteristics in your jobs affects work-related outcomes — motivation, satisfaction, performance, absenteeism, and turnover.
I was more than excited by this new learning. In my mind, this was a ‘secret sauce’!
This colleague listened intently and could see I was ‘over the top’ with enthusiasm. I want to change the organisation so every employee has a job like this. Finally, after a couple of weeks, he sat me down. He respectfully said he could see that the workshop had significantly impacted me and that my enthusiasm was palpable. Still, I needed to understand that there were only two real motivators in the real world, FEAR and GREED, so don’t get too carried away with all this new stuff. It was a thought that has stayed with me all these years.

In my next few years, I discovered a whole range of new concepts and acquired many new skills:
• Management and leadership training
• Management by Objectives as a management system
• Management Information Systems
• Productivity improvement and
• Self-managed Work teams

All this was part of my learning before the publication of In Search of Excellence. The publication of In Search of Excellence only increased my enthusiastic pursuit of knowledge.
The secret sauce: there is not a serious business in the world not looking for it.

Can I break the news to you – it is not shareholder value – or more money!

Curious about what these workers were doing, the traveller approached the first worker and asked, “What are you doing?”
Without hesitation, the first (1) worker replied, “I am a stone cutter, and I am cutting stones.”
Still unclear of the workers’ task, the traveller approached the second worker and asked the same question. To this, the second (2) worker thought momentarily, gazed briefly at the traveller, and explained, “I am a stone cutter, and I am cutting stones to earn money to support my family.”
Perplexed by the two different responses, the sojourner approached the third (3) worker and asked, “What are you doing?” Stopping for a moment, the worker stared at the stone in his hand, slowly turned to the traveller, and said, “I am a stone cutter, and I AM BUILDING A CATHEDRAL!”
Three men — all working at the same site, performing the same task — each had three very different perspectives of what they were working toward.

I don’t doubt that culture is a significant part of the secret sauce – so what is organisational culture? To understand it –there are many models, and one posited by Edgar Schein is worth considering.
Edgar Schein, model of organisation culture

According to Edgar Schein – Organisations do not adopt a culture in a single day. Instead, it is formed as the employees undergo various changes, adapt to the external environment, and solve problems.
They gain from their past experiences and start practising them every day, thus forming the workplace culture. The new employees also strive to adjust to the unique culture and enjoy a stress-free life.
Schein believed that there are three levels in an organisation’s culture.
1. Artifacts
The first level is the organisation’s characteristics which can be easily viewed, heard, and felt by individuals collectively known as artifacts. For example, the dress code of the employees, office furniture, facilities, employee behaviour, the employees, mission and vision of the organisation all come under artifacts and go a long way in deciding the workplace culture.
Organization A
o No one in organisation A is allowed to dress up casually.
o Employees respect their superiors and avoid unnecessary disputes.
o The individuals are very particular about the deadlines and ensure the tasks are accomplished within the stipulated time frame.
Organization B
o The employees can wear whatever they feel like.
o Individuals in organisation B are least bothered about work and spend their maximum time loitering and gossiping.
o The employees use derogatory remarks at the workplace, pulling each other into controversies.
In the above case, employees in organisation A wear dresses that exude professionalism and strictly follow the organisation’s policies. On the other hand, employees in Organisation B have a laid-back attitude and do not take their work seriously. Organization A follows a strict professional culture, whereas Organization B follows a weak culture where the employees do not willingly accept things.
2. Values
The next level, which constitutes the organisation’s culture, is the values of the employees.
The values of the individuals working in the organisation play an important role in deciding the organisation’s culture.
Employees’ thought processes and attitudes profoundly impact any organisation’s culture. What do people think matters a lot for the organisation? The individual’s mindset associated with any organisation influences the culture of the workplace.
3. Assumed Values
The third level is the employees’ assumed values, which cannot be measured but make a difference in the organisation’s culture. Finally, there are certain beliefs and facts which stay hidden but do affect the culture of the organisation.
The inner aspects of human nature come under the third level of organisation culture. For example, organisations, where female workers dominate their male counterparts, do not believe in late (night) sittings as females are uncomfortable with such culture. On the other hand, male employees would be more aggressive and not have problems with late sittings.
The organisations follow certain practices that are not discussed often but are understood independently. Such rules form the third level of the organisation’s culture.

Grappling with culture is a business challenge! There are so many variables, and the focus on leadership has become almost meaningless as it has evolved. So when you start a ‘culture change program, it is worth remembering:

History, tradition, custom and prejudice are just some baggage you need to unpack!


The Guru’s Cat
When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract worshippers. So, he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship.
Long after the guru died, the cat continued to be tied up during evening worship. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship.
Centuries later, learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the essential role of the cat in all properly conducted worship.

History; Tradition; Custom: Prejudice – the great challenge?

This paper started with the question asking: what is the secret sauce?

In recent times I have mentioned Patagonia as a possible exemplar. In the spirit of learning, s colleague experimented with chat GPT and forwarded this to me as a product of his question to chat GPT about Patagonia.

Patagonia is known for being a great place to work for various reasons. Some of the factors that contribute to its positive reputation include:
1. Purpose-driven mission: Patagonia is a mission-driven company that focuses on environmental activism and sustainability. Employees at Patagonia are passionate about the company’s values and work hard to impact the world positively.
2. Work-life balance: Patagonia values work-life balance and offers flexible schedules, generous time off, and other benefits to support employees in maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal life.
3. Employee empowerment: Patagonia is known for its decentralised structure, which gives employees a high degree of autonomy and responsibility. This helps to foster a culture of creativity, innovation, and empowerment.
4. Environmental and social initiatives: Patagonia is committed to positively impacting the environment and communities where it operates. The company supports a wide range of initiatives and programs, both internally and through partnerships, that benefit the environment and local communities.
5. Employee benefits: Patagonia offers a comprehensive package of benefits to its employees, including health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, and more. The company also supports ongoing professional development and career growth opportunities.
 Patagonia is a great workplace because it offers a supportive and empowering environment aligned with its values and mission.
Source: chatGPT (Tom Callinan)

Only in the last week did I read a note about Patagonia highlighting an element of their culture.
If you are a Patagonia customer, you probably believe in its mission, and the email will likely resonate with you. One sentence, however, stuck out to me more than the others. It turns out it’s a powerful lesson for every brand and small business owner.
“Let’s make things that last longer.”Opening the question about secrets or culture is a part of the reason Business owners and business leaders engage in professional development.
Some questions to ponder:

How do the people who work for you feel coming to work Monday morning?

How do your customers describe their relationship with your business?

What does the industry say about your business?

The answers to these questions might give you a clue to the secret sauce – or not!

Discovering the secret sauce – it’s another chapter!
Building a Great Business? Or The pursuit of mediocrity?

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