Culture Rules – Part One: “What is the ‘Ethos’ of Your company/organization?”

Excerpted with permission from Mark Miller’s new book “Culture Rules”

Note from Bob: In a recent conversation with a good friend, who is the CEO of a very successful custom software company with offices in multiple states – along with Canada and Mexico, I asked him, “How often do you think about your company culture.”   He said, “The only time I am not thinking about it is when I am sleeping – but even then there I nights I dream about it!” 

My friend, Mark Miller, Vice President of High Performance Leadership at Chick-fil-A has written an incredible book to help all of us create and sustain strong vibrant cultures for our companies/organizations.  My hope is that the “Excerpt” shared below will wet your appetite so that you will click on the link to purchase “Culture Rules” so that you can enjoy the entire meal! 

I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just an aspect of the game - it is the game! - Lue Gerstner, Former CEO of IBM
  • Seventy-one percent of US leaders believe culture is their most powerful tool (67 percent globally)
  • Sixty-eight percent of leaders around the world believe making culture a top priority is a requirement for positive business outcomes
  • Thirty years ago, the impact of culture was already clear. A 1992 study spanning the previous eleven years found a 756 percent increase in net income in companies focused on culture compared to a 1 percent increase in those without performance-enhancing cultures.
  • According to McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index, companies with top-quartile cultures post a return to shareholders 60 percent higher than median companies and 200 percent higher than those in the bottom quartile.

Three Rules for Building Your Culture:

These 3 Rules and their accompanying best practices will enable you to:

  • Clarify and communicate your organization’s cultural aspirations.
  • Reinforce the aspiration through your daily activities.
  • Maintain relevance and vitality by constantly enhancing your culture.

Rule #1: Aspire
Share your hopes and dreams for the culture.

What is the cultural Aspiration for your organization? 

The first rule when building a High Performance Culture is to Aspire: Share your hopes and dreams for the culture.

Every great culture begins with an Aspiration. Leaders call forth the best from themselves and those they lead. If you already have an Aspiration, is it clear, compelling, and pervasive? I am amazed by the number of leaders who have not given enough thought to the question of their Aspiration. Ambiguity on this single issue guarantees unwanted stress, strain, and unrealized expectations in the future. We interviewed many leaders who admitted this foundational rule had been violated in their organization. Each of these conversations reminded me of this famous conversation from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where—”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.”

Words Matter

A word about terminology before we go any further.  Do you have a shared language in your organization? Does your entire workforce have clarity on your Aspiration and the words you will use to describe it? Just because something is clear to you does not mean there is clarity in the minds of your organization.

Over the years, the questions I have received most often around the concept of a shared Aspiration revolve around terminology:

  • What is the difference between vision and mission?
  • What’s the difference between purpose and vision?
  • Should we have a vision, purpose, and mission?
  • Does every organization have an ethos?
  • Do I have to use any of these words to build a great organization?

How do we simplify all of this? I’m fearful my answer is not going to satisfy you any more than it has the countless leaders with whom I’ve shared it previously: you get to decide! Are you a leader who craves detail? If so, we can parse out the difference between these terms (we’ll help you do this later in the book). Or are you a leader who thrives on a minimalist view and loves simplicity? In either case, you can design a solution tailored to your preferences.

Here’s the big idea on this topic. All of these terms—vision, mission, purpose, ethos, and values—are different ways to do one thing: to help you crystalize, clarify, and articulate the Aspiration you have for your organization.

Once you decide which term or terms you will use, then comes the most critical part of the process:

You must define the word(s) you have chosen for your entire organization. It really doesn’t matter which terms you use, as long as your organization knows how you define them. As one example, a leader of a large nonprofit organization told me “mission” is their word for why they exist, not “purpose”—fantastic! As long as there is alignment within your organization.

If you do not define the terms for your organization, confusion will rule, not culture. Confusion creates organizational drag; clarity accelerates progress.

Shared language is one of the cornerstones of all High Performance Cultures. Do yourself a favor and take the simple step to establish a common vocabulary. Words matter!

Note from Bob:  Mark has packed so much great content into “Culture Rules” that it simply cannot all be shared in just one post – so we are going to break Rule #1 “Aspire” into five parts!   

Today’s Post, “What Is the ‘Ethos’ of Your Company/Organization?” is Part One!

Click HERE to read Part Two: “What Is the ‘Purpose’ of Your Company/Organization?” which was posted on March 2

Click HERE to read Part Three:  “What Is your ‘Vision’ for Your Company/Organization?”

Click HERE to read Part Four:  “What Is the ‘Mission’ for Your Company/Organization?” 

Click HERE to read Part Five: “What Are the ‘Values’ for Your Company/Organization?” 

Where Do You Begin?

The thought of articulating the ethos of your organization may be thrilling or daunting. Regardless, I want to give you some steps you can take. This is work you can share, but you cannot delegate it away. The ethos should be a reflection of your head and your heart.

Here is an activity to help you begin this important work.

Step One: If you were going to list ten words to characterize your organization at some point in
the future, which ten words would you select?
Step Two: Cut the list in half—you can only keep five. Rank them in order of priority.
Step Three: Scratch numbers four and five. What do you think about the remaining three words?
Step Four: Write a paragraph for each of the three words, describing in vivid detail how each
one will be manifested in your ideal future. Each paragraph should be no longer than 150 words.

Then edit or rewrite the paragraphs as necessary to end with a single sentence describing each attribute of your ethos. For bonus points, pick just one of the three. What would happen if this single word represented your ethos?

Or, You Could Ask…

If you lead an existing team, department, division, or organization, design a simple survey with one question:

How would you describe our culture?

Leave the word count open on the survey. If someone wants to write a word, a sentence, a paragraph, or a white paper, let them.  When you receive the input, put all the responses in any software program capable of creating a word cloud and see what you learn. You may discover your ethos is well established. Perhaps it even aligns with your Aspiration. If so, congratulations! If not, you will have a better understanding of the scope and scale of your task ahead.

To recap, the first move you must make if you want a High Performance Culture is to decide and declare what you are trying to create. What is the spirit, the essence, the ethos of your ideal culture?

Click HERE to purchase your “Culture Rules” book today!

You can also view the one hour Webinar on “Culture Rules” Mark did on February 6 by clicking  HERE

Mark Miller


Mark Miller is a business leader, best-selling author, and a communicator. He is currently serving as the Vice President of High Performance Leadership for Chick-fil-A, Inc. Beyond chicken, Mark’s global influence continues to grow. Today, there are over a million copies of his books in print, in twenty-five languages. Culture Rules is his eleventh  title.


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