What 'Culture' Means for Veteran-Owned Businesses

(U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jordyn Fetter)

For some business owners, "culture" might sound like some gobbledygook corporations use to sound more woke. For others, it might seem like something a high-minded business guru came up with to sell books. In reality, culture has a very practical -- and important -- business function.

Culture can mean everything from the attitudes of a company's employees and the way they communicate to the general "vibe" of the office and the company's core values. All of those definitions are correct, but what business culture really comes down to is what makes the company successful.

"Culture is a really squishy topic and encompasses so many things," Chris Cancialosi, managing partner and founder of gothamCulture, said in a presentation at the 2023 Veteran Edge Conference in Dallas. "If I asked everyone their definition of culture, they're all probably going to be correct. But culture is essentially 'The Way Things Get Done Around Here.'"

Cancialosi, a former Army Cavalry officer and Blackhawk pilot, in 2005 founded gothamCulture with a mission to help businesses address changes as they scale up and change, especially in the areas of leadership, culture and people strategy.

He's also scaled up his own business, through both normal functions and acquisitions. After a couple of years in business, gothamCulture officials decided to sit down and consider what has made the company so successful. The discussions revealed the core values the company believes led to its success.

"We still hold ourselves accountable to them," he says. "So when we talk about organizational culture, we're talking about the fundamental values of the organization that guide our behavior."

gothamCulture has a five-phase process for determining the core values: Assess, Dialogue, Design, Implement and Sustain. The most unique part about its process is the Dialogue phase.

"One of the things that makes organizational culture difficult is that it's a concept based on a collective experience," Cancialosi says. "You can't understand or evolve it without including the collective. You need the dialogue phase to tap into the collective."

Cancialosi compares the aspects of business culture to an iceberg. A company's norms and behaviors, the most visible and tangible parts of company culture, are the tip of the iceberg.

Just below the waterline, sometimes visible but often obscured, are the attitudes and beliefs the company holds to be true. These are important because they manifest as company policies and procedures that guide employee behavior.

Well below the surface, not visible to most, are the underlying beliefs, values and assumptions about the proper way things get done. These are the less-understood and rarely questioned beliefs. They are also often intangible.

"Our job is to peel back the onion and try to understand, as deeply as possible, what is driving those behaviors of the invisible part," says Cancialosi. "We can observe behaviors, but we can't observe things we don't even think about. It's the way a new employee starts a new job, trying to understand everything about the job. Eventually, they don't think about it anymore because they automatically understand how to survive."

Organizations make mistakes, but they learn from those mistakes as a collective. Once you learn what works and what doesn't work in the system, organizations can adjust. This process is where the core set of beliefs of how they should work begins.

"The more collective lessons we have over time, the more it reinforces our belief that how we do things is the right way to do it," says Cancialosi. "Culture develops in any group over time, based on shared experiences and lessons learned. Every culture is going to be different.

"Culture provides those unwritten rules about 'how we do things around here,' so you don't need to think about it every day," he continues. "It frees up our brain power to move things forward."

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.

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