I talk about culture all the time, mostly in the context of literacy, but also in relation to college-going, school climate, and the arts. I’ve never been hard-pressed to offer a suitable definition for culture in any of these scenarios, but when you remove the word culture from the context it’s referencing it became trickier for me to define. It’s a feeling, an energy that a space embodies. It’s palpable, but at the same time can be invisible. It’s strong, but can be weak or unhealthy. It’s observable in the people, but also in the things. (See, it’s tricky?) What is it really?
Per an assignment for my “culture of high-performing schools” class, I headed out on a field trip to investigate this further. I’m on the road this week, so tonight I flopped down in a comfy spot in my hotel’s lobby and I prepared to soak up the evidence that would lead me to a more complete definition of culture. My assignment included guiding questions to steer my thinking: What do you suppose the mission and values of the organization are? What evidence do you see to support your hunch? Is there consistency in how employees and customers conduct themselves?
Here’s what I observed and my thoughts on the matter:
- Uniformed attendants, calm, cool and collected. One greeted me and asked about my day. (I’ve been here 5 nights already. She’s seen me come and go.) It’s worth noting that all attendants I’ve encountered here are young, professional, and kind. This is not the norm in the hotel circuit. It’s a refreshing change.
- Guests moving in and out of the dining area, some to get snacks that the hotel provides (fruit, yogurt, cookies), some needing caffeine (free coffee!), some partaking in the “manager’s meal” which is a tiny smorgasbord of themed dinner food the hotel offers each week night. Tonight it was a taco bar. (I have a calendar in my room alerting me of what foods happen which nights.)
- Guests checking in, weary from wherever they’ve come from. Some have multiple suitcases and pillows in tow. (Who brings their own pillow to a hotel? This was news to me.) Most guests are slick, regular travelers: one bag, a computer and maybe a purse.
- Hotel maintenance and cleaning staff are moving purposefully about the halls, all appear to be headed somewhere. One gal, whom I presume was part of the cleaning staff (she was in a uniform gray dress) saw a guest coming and held the elevator for her just in case she was going to another floor.
- Front desk attendants juggle arriving guests and phone calls, sometimes making guests wait while they answer phones. (This is a no-no according to the customer service training I lived through in the 90’s. I wonder if the rule has changed.)
- Guests requesting toiletries or asking questions of the front staff. Some lady needed a tooth brush. She got one.
- There’s a small business office tucked in a nook right inside the hotel lobby. There’s a man on the computer, and two others in suits all discussing something to do with engineering. They are noisy.
- There’s a large sign that declares, “All pets must be announced at check-in.” This makes me laugh. I envision introducing my shih-tzu to staff. I also am guessing she’d be warmly received. Just a hunch.
- There’s a giant stone fireplace by my chair, but no fire tonight. (too warm outside) Multiple areas in the lobby for small groups to congregate comfortably. Stools by the “bar”, chairs by the window and fireplace, couches in the center, arm chairs in the business office.
- Brochures and magazines about the town are available for guests.
- Hotel furnishings aren’t fancy but somehow feel trendy: chaise lounges; quirky pendant lighting; large, close-up photographs of musical instrument parts are framed on the walls; pillows have abstract and geometric designs; the walls are cool yellow or papered with a textured linen material. (It’s worth noting, my guest room is also just like this. But add to it stainless apartment-sized appliances, a full kitchen, a separate sleeping space, a “living room” and desk space, and a large bath and closet space. I even have a recliner in my room that doesn’t look like a recliner. Ben linens are crisp white and the kind that come off easily and can be washed…no crummy bedspreads here. It’s a bigger room than most any I’ve stayed in before for business.)
And so I’m guessing here, that this hotel strives to be a home-away-from-home that’s slightly cooler than where you live. Or at least more like a home than any other hotel you might frequent for business. I think they pride themselves on a courteous staff that stays out of a business traveler’s way, but is friendly and available to help a guest that needs assistance. They are committed to a unique surrounding that feels expensive but fits in the business traveler’s budget. They are not trying to be a mega-luxury hotel, but they want to stand out above the sea of options for long or short-term stays.
So how does this help me define culture? I’m beginning to think my definition of culture from above, is not all that incomplete. I think I would add to it that culture emerges from a vision for how things should or can be. It’s most definitely in the people and the way things look and feel, the way people move through a space and how they regard one another in and around the place. It’s shaped by common beliefs, or at least an agreement to adhere to a common way of moving through the work. When it’s healthy and good it’s hard to pin down, but when it’s awful it’s everywhere you look. This I know to be true not just from my years of experience in hotels, but from the reality of the schools I service. I am aware more now than ever that culture is worth fighting for. It’s a make or break component of success. And as a leader, I expect you have to be completely clear on you vision and mission in order to build or shape the culture you invest in. This is a good thing to know.