Is all the talk about organizational culture just another management fad or bit of consulting jargon? Oh contraire. It may very well be the most important aspect of how your team performs.

First let’s be clear on what this admittedly bandied around term actually means, and go straight to the age old source of meaning, the dictionary. Webster’s Dictionary says culture is “the integrated pattern of human behaviour that includes thought, speech, action and artifacts and depends on man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.”

So, culture is about quite simply, how we, a team or an entire organization, behave. It can be thought of as the “the way things are done around here”….and it’s reflected in the way people act, interact and make decisions. It’s learned and reinforced – by what is accepted, acknowledged and rewarded. And finally, it’s communicated with the future in mind.

For example, think back to when you first joined your current employer, what were those first days like? Was the receptionist friendly and helpful? Where people up and about talking to one another, or sequestered at their desks? In meetings, does everyone voice their views and opinions? Who speaks first, the most or the less senior person?

This experience would have created an initial impression for you, or given you a feeling, of what it’s like to work there. In observing how everyone behaved, you would begin to learn what’s important and what’s valued. Whether you can put words to it or not, this is the culture of your organization. And if you are like most people, you will want to be successful in your job as quickly as possible, which means you will want to fit into that new culture and start to adopt ‘the way of doing things.’ You’ll be able to do this quite effectively and happily if two important conditions are met. First, are the behaviours congruent across the organization – meaning is what’s important clear and consistent, and does management ‘walk the talk?’ And secondly, is what’s important to your company also important to you? Answering ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’ you will be able to become an integral part of the culture and make a positive contribution.

So if this is how we each experience the culture in our team and in our organization, who’s creating it? Yes, this is where you put on your leadership hat. You are in a powerful position to shape the culture, and ensure it helps rather than hinders success. There are two more important questions you need to ask. In addition to being congruent and consistent, are these the behaviours we want in the first place – will these behaviours help us be successful? And, am I walking the talk?

Let’s take two of the best examples I know of companies who are getting this right and see what we can learn.

Vodafone Australia has developed a set of values with the input of everyone in the organisation that is the foundation of how they run their business. It’s allowed them to flatten their management structures, and the culture has become a drawing card for recruiting.

Understanding the organisation’s values is a key part of training for new staff. And the focus on values has paid off for Vodafone in its growth in a competitive mobile phone market in Australia.

Johnson and Johnson is a company where I have personally witnessed management that truly ‘walks the talk’ of their company values. Their ‘Credo’ was formed more than sixty years ago and states that the company’s foremost responsibility is to ” the doctors, nurse, patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.” Perhaps easy to say, but Johnson and Johnson actually lives up to this, even under extreme pressure, which is where the real test occurs. The Tylenol tampering scare was a clear example. Every single Tylenol package in America was recalled from retailers, at an expense of US$100 million to Johnson and Johnson, to avoid any further risk to the public and to “those who use the product.”

Is this living up to the credo, or simply good business sense? Probably both, because of the high standard Johnson and Johnson sets for ‘honouring’ these values. Every few years, the company reviews and encourages debate around the credo by holding day-long ‘credo challenge’ workshops across the company. In my experience working with the company, I was impressed to no end at how every employee had these values front of mind, all the time. On more than one occasion, I witnessed people referring to “the credo” and once, calling someone (who was more senior) up on a decision that was not in keeping with the credo. When was the last time that similar reviews and discussions occurred in your business?

If there’s one thing we learn from these companies, it’s that culture is actually much more than ‘the way things are done around here’ or a guidepost for acceptable behaviour. It can be a means to engage staff around what’s important every single day, and empower them to proactively take action and be accountable for personally making that happen.