Corporate Culture is Like a Bonsai Tree

One of the greatest assets that a corporation has is often little understood or appreciated, bonsai_juniper because it’s an off-balance-sheet asset whose acquisition occurs slowly over time and is rarely managed or considered as an asset. Corporate culture is something I’m comparing to a bonsai tree… its size belies its age, value, and complexity. One can also tend to forget it’s like a living organism.

Wally Bock’s Lessons from the Rise and Fall of Delta Airlines are instructive in several ways for the negative example set by CEO Ron Allen, who squandered the corporate culture in pursuit of “the bottom line.” Unfortunately for Delta, the way to the best bottom line is often a counter-intuitive one that takes best advantage of intangible assets like corporate culture. Among the summary statements of Wally’s lessons from his example is this gem:

Culture is a powerful, but fragile thing. If you burn down the culture tree, it takes a long time to grow another one.

Every company has a culture, but few appreciate this culture as an asset that can be built up or torn down, or one which can be leveraged for profit. On the other hand, if it is nurtured and cared for, nourished and pruned, over time it can become one of the most powerful forces in the company and the greatest contributor to its bottom line. As I was reading Wally’s summary, a single counter-illustration jumped into my head, perhaps because it’s also an airline with a strong corporate culture. I thought about the WestJet $10 example of how corporate culture is nourished and valued, and the way in which it pays off for the company.

I would venture to say that every great company probably has a strongly positive corporate culture. What can you do to nourish the culture in your company?