Corporate Cultures

Culture Shock

What you don't understand about your company's culture can hurt you.

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

Every company has a corporate culture. It lives of its own will, unless strong direction is applied to command its course. Visionary gaming operators take charge of their cultures and strive to mold them to a strategically-defined ideal. Mirage, Grand Casinos, and Station Casinos come to mind as examples of the growing number of progressive gaming companies which actively shape their corporate cultures to serve their mission. 

Why do the intelligent casino executives of these companies spend their time, money, and energy on corporate culture development? Why is it so important? What would happen if they didn't? 

In future issues of Casino Executive, this column will explore the impact of corporate cultures on the success -- and failure -- of gaming companies. 

As the authors define it, "corporate culture" encompasses all the factors that determine how the people in a company think and act, as a group and as individuals. A corporate culture is the sum of a company's history, legends, myths, heroes, values, rituals, communications, collective experience, and business environment. 

Advertising and marketing project what a company appears to be, its image; the corporate culture defines what a company is, its identity. It is spiritual (esprit de corps, not religion), experiential (firsthand involvement and the emotional impact of it), and philosophical (bonding with a whole that is greater than all its parts). 

Walt Disney, credited with launching one of the most powerful and successful customer service cultures in American business, is often quoted as saying, "You can dream, create, design, and build the most wonderful place in the world ... but it requires people to make the dream a reality." 

Every person in the organization, from housekeeper to CEO, contributes to the flavor of a given culture. What that flavor is depends on the type and strength of the seasonings that go into the broth. 

The corporate culture of a company is increasingly of interest to employees. Personnel Journal(July 1996) cites a study showing that executive job interviewees ask about the corporate culture almost as much as benefits (34% and 36%, respectively). Employees at all levels seem to have a powerful, unfulfilled need to belong to something they can be proud of and pour their best energies into. 

A company's corporate culture may be clear and unmistakable -- though this is not automatically good if it happens to be a strong negative culture. Not uncommonly, though, corporate cultures are ambiguous and poorly defined. Ask twenty employees in one of these operations what their culture is, and you'll likely get twenty different answers. Nobody seems to know for sure what it is, or if there even is one. By contrast, there are relatively fewer gaming companies which have well-defined, strong corporate cultures that exert positive influence on the behavior of their employees. In such companies, the employees know and believe in the vision of the company and are emotionally committed to fulfill its mission. 

But, so what? What has the corporate culture to do with profits and dividends for the stockholders? Broadly speaking, the link between the health of the corporate culture and a company's bottom line performance is poorly understood, if at all. In a future column, we will probe in detail the measurable dollars-and-cents connection. You may be shocked at the correlation. 

Gaming is gripped in a complex paradigm shift, evolving from a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality to a customer-focused mindset. Even as the industry booms, it is bedeviled by uncertainty about the future. Following an unprecedented decade of growth, casinos are faced with a period of few new jurisdictions becoming available, oversaturation in some markets, and a rising political backlash against gambling. Internally, the cultures of gaming companies often suffer from the uncertainty, and a general disconnect between management and employees and among departments is rampant in many casinos. Traditional 24-hour gaming cultures run headlong into the 9-5 family-centered cultures of emerging markets and the ethnic differences of tribal venues. 

Cultural neurosis is common. Lack of communication, lack of trust, lack of respect, lack of understanding -- these are but a few of the reported symptoms. The dilemma, however, is how to diagnose the cause and, even larger, how to cure it. 

In coming issues, we will address the concerns of casino executives grappling with how to relate the state of a corporate culture to bottom line results. Some of the questions casino executives ask are these: 

  •  What exactly is the culture of my company? 
  • What effect is it having on my success or lack of it? 
  • What can be done to manage our culture and make it as it should be? 
  • What is the cost of controlling my company's culture and how do I measure whether it's paying off? 
  • What are the consequences if I do nothing about the culture of my company and let it take its own course?
  • What are my competitors doing about their cultures, and what impact will it have on me? 
We will probe into the sensitive, often misunderstood issues of creating and maintaining a corporate culture which derives its energy from within, rather than being forced down by mandate from management. Interviews with senior executives representing the spectrum of gaming operations will provide timely and hard-hitting real-life context. We will try to frame conceptual solutions in pragmatic terms that relate to bottom line results, rather than warm and fuzzy promises. 

In his book, The Power of Internal Marketing, Lamar D. Berry observes: "The sensible manager sees the value of rituals which promulgate the desired culture and perpetuates them as prized assets. And an executive who is astute at rooting out traditions that are detrimental to the culture should replace them with activities that convey appropriate behavioral lessons. Building strong cultures will not heal all of society's ills. But the companies that strive to do so will have a decided advantage over those that don' makes good business and social sense." 

The scope of corporate cultures sweeps many destinations. We hope you'll come along for the journey to explore these horizons.

(This article appeared in the October 1996 issue