Do You Know What Culture Is Really About?

Jan 27, 2017 1 Min Read


A company’s culture is revealed in how employees choose to work with each other

I love taking early morning walks, starting my walk just before sunrise. It is a quiet and contemplative time of the day for me, giving me an opportunity to witness the start of a new day, with all its new possibilities. During these walks, I take my camera with me as you never know when you may be presented with an opportunity to capture something special.

It was during one of these walks that I captured a poignant photo of a man, employed as a cleaner, picking up litter from the beach, with the downtown Dubai skyline in the background.

It made me think a lot about who we are, how we behave and how corporate culture in a company is developed and nurtured. Here was a cleaner, doing what most would regard as low-paid manual work, picking up litter, as a glitzy city wakes up in the background.

What does he think about the people living in these upmarket high-rises, with expensive cars and well-paid jobs? And all these people living a privileged life in Dubai. . . do they ever stop to think about the cleaners who keep their beaches neat and tidy?


This photo speaks to me about our unique roles in life. Do we take what we have for granted or do we approach life with gratitude and humility? Do we treat others with dignity and respect regardless of their position? We all have our roles in life. Some are cleaners, some supervisors and some chief executive officers (CEOs). How do we treat others? Do we see the person behind the position?

Culture is not what leaders decide it is going to be – it is how employees choose to work with one another.

Respect, trust, dignity and a feeling of safety goes to the heart of a company’s culture. In the ground-breaking book Everybody Matters, Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller and co-author Raj Sisodia tell the story of what happens when ordinary people throw away long accepted management practices and start operating from their deepest sense of right, with a sense of profound responsibility for the lives entrusted to them.

During the Great Recession, Barry-Wehmiller, like most other companies, faced severe challenges that could have been answered by sacrificing people for the benefit of the business.

Instead, as Chapman recalls, “we challenged ourselves with this question: How can we redefine success and measure it by the way we touch the lives of all our people? At the heart of our stories is a simple, powerful, transformative, and testable idea: Every one of our team members is important and worthy of care. Every one of them is instrumental in the future of our business, and our business is instrumental in their lives”.

“When people are financially invested, they seek a return. When they are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”– Simon Sinek

As a result, Barry-Wehmiller – a global supplier of manufacturing technology and services – emerged from the downturn as a stronger company with higher employee morale than ever before.
As leaders, when we think about developing our corporate culture, we would do well to remember the following:

  • What is Culture? – Culture relates to those intangible things we feel about a company. Culture is not what the top leadership decides it is going to be – it is how employees choose to work with one another. It permeates everything we do and say to each other.
    Culture is created not designated, and we either like the culture or decide this is not what we signed up for.
  • Practice gratitude – Gratitude helps us to be mindful of what we have, whatever that amounts to. Being grateful teaches us awareness, empathy and compassion.
    Gratitude allows me to see another’s situation, and to assist when help is needed.
  • Respect – Treating ourselves and others with respect and dignity. Do not judge a person by their material standing or position. Treat all people with respect and dignity.
  • Reward, recognition and appreciation – These are essential elements of a successful culture. They celebrate success and acknowledge good performance. Find ways to simply say “thank you” – this is a powerful way for leadership to improve employee engagement and retention.

Simon Sinek said: “When people are financially invested, they seek a return. When they are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”

  • Everyone has a role – We each have a unique role. Cleaners clean and CEOs run companies. Each is as important as the other.

Make time in your day to appreciate people around you.

Everyone is entitled to respect and dignity. Treat others as you would want to be treated. This is what culture is all about. As the authors of Everybody Matters put it: “Everyone wants to do better. Trust them. Leaders are everywhere. Find them. People achieve good things, big and small, every day. Celebrate them. Some people wish things were different. Listen to them. Everybody matters. Show them.”

Anton is an executive human resource (HR) leader with extensive experience with a global automotive manufacturer. With assignments throughout the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Anton has successfully established new business units in emerging markets, and enhanced the efficiency and effectiveness of HR operations in mature markets. To learn more on best practices in corporate culture and values, e-mail

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Anton van der Walt is the author of two books The Transformational Leader and Leadership Through My Lens. He has spent more than 20 years working in corporate positions across the globe. “How people work with people” is the driving force behind a lot of Anton’s thinking and teaching. He is passionate about inspiring people and guiding business leaders to best develop themselves, their teams and the business.

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