Sweatpants, Meat Dresses, and You

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 12:  Singer Lady Gaga poses in the press room during the MTV Video Music Awards at NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE on September 12, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Lady Gaga

We’ve all seen them. You might even have worn (or be wearing) them yourself. Usually, when I think of them, I think of something I’ve seen fathers and grandfathers wearing. It’s those non-descript, gray sweatpants with the elastic waistband and elastic around the ankle opening. You know the ones. The benefit of such stylish trousers is simple: it’s pretty much a one-size-fits-all situation. Gain a few pounds lately? No worries. They’ll still fit. The elastic waistband all but ensures that.

Keep those lovely cotton pants in mind, but let’s shift gears. No matter how hard I try to ignore her existence, Lady Gaga is everywhere. Everywhere I tell you! Her music (and yes, she seems to be capable of producing infectious pop melodies) is often overshadowed, in my opinion, by her bizarre behavior and even more bizarre wardrobe. She’s worn what most of us would eat, having donned a meat dress and worn an egg to an awards show. Her fans love her for being unique, and then try to bottle up that uniqueness and produce their own version of it so they can be unique. Just like her. I hope the irony’s not lost on you.

Oddly enough, that’s what a lot of organizations seem to want to do with their culture. They want to do one of two things: Either they want to blend in and be just like everyone else with their one-size-fits-all approach to culture, or they want to manufacture this crazy, unique culture they saw somewhere else.

Neither of those options is good. In fact, they’re both terrible ideas.

How can we build a culture like Zappos? How can we recreate an environment like Google’s?

I’ve gotten some variation of those questions multiple times over the last several months, and those questions are understandable. No one’s denying that organizations like those have found a way to cultivate distinct and healthy cultures. And no one’s arguing an organization shouldn’t do that — certainly not me anyway.

But here’s the thing: your organization isn’t Zappos. Nor is it Google. Or Southwest. Or Apple.

Nope. Your organization is different. Your organization has its own way of doing things. It has its own brand, its own style. Your organization is a distinct entity, a separate faction, a unique tribe.

And that’s why you can’t approach your organizational culture like it’s a pair of sweatpants or a meat dress. Even if you could reproduce Zappos’ culture, you shouldn’t. You wouldn’t want to. We don’t need another Zappos. We need you. You need you.

Culture is as distinct as DNA — at least it should be. So when thinking about your culture, don’t start thinking about who you want to be like necessarily. Think about who you are. Think about what the best version of you looks like. What makes your organization tick? What kinds of values are important to your employees? How are you different than everyone else?¬† Why is the marketplace better because you’re in it?

So go ahead — admire Zappos. Admire Google. Admire other organizations that seem to have healthy cultures. But while you’re doing so, keep in mind that they’ve built their own brands, their own cultures, their own identities. And then start working on yours.

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