The Critical Role of Culture Fit in B2B Relationships

S ome recent meetings have reminded me of the critical nature of culture fit in business-to-business relationships. Healthy, productive business relationships are built on shared values and priorities.  Sounds obvious doesn’t it? The problem is that shifting definitions of organizational culture and awareness of our own culture often cloud our ability to make a clear determination of culture fit.

In a 2013 Harvard Business Review Article, Michael Watkins synthesizes various views on organizational culture.

  • Culture is consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations.
  • Culture is powerfully shaped by incentives.
  • Culture is a process of “sense-making” in organizations – the “what”
  • Culture is a carrier of meaning – the “why”
  • Culture is a social control system – the norms
  • Culture is a form of protection that has evolved from situational pressures.

Clearly, culture goes beyond shared values and priorities. This shouldn’t surprise us because organizations are as complex as the personalities that comprise them.  In spite of this, we continue to issue RFP’s, generic vendor profile forms, and other mass-request mechanisms seeking to boil vendor/organizational complexities down to a simple set of check-boxes. In our attempt to remove the softer, less finite elements, we miss many of the factors most critical to the ongoing success of any relationship.

Obviously, not all products, services, or organizations are created equal and we need to assess capabilities. However, in seeking technical, pricing, or other clearly measurable features/benefits, we overlook advantages afforded by relationship, cultural fit, and affinity. This goes beyond the personality of your sales rep or primary contact at a potential partner company. Front men and women tend to be the most likable folks; that is why they are out front. Strong culture fit is about more than liking your rep. Look at it as you would a personal relationship. Culture fit is mutual affinity. It is a combination of appeal, trust, and shared beliefs that creates a solid foundation on which to build a lasting relationship. It has to run deeper than one person.

Lead with Culture

These days, I lead most introductions with the culture question.  Guess what? Sometimes we’re not the best cultural fit. I can usually tell within the first 5 minutes of a meeting. Part of it revolves around objectives, part of it is communication style, part of it is organizational structure, part of it is organizational personality, part of it is sense of humor, and on and on and on. Tell me what you like in a friend. Tell me what builds trust. Tell me what turns you off. Organizations are collections of people exhibiting these traits; you can see it and feel it every time.

Like any strong human relationship, a good cultural fit allows for some degree of failure and recovery.

The best relationships are built on trust, shared beliefs, reciprocal needs, common objectives, and mutual affection. This doesn’t mean that you agree on everything. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own agenda or priorities. A good cultural fit means that there is enough common ground to carry the relationship through when disagreements occur. Like any strong human relationship, a good cultural fit allows for some degree of failure and recovery.

Aspirational Culture

My favorite cultural element is the aspirational nature, or lack thereof, of the organization. In my experience, this is the most subtle and overlooked cultural element because it speaks to the unseen nature of where we are going. Fast growing, expanding organizations have a different flavor – an air of possibility. This doesn’t mean that they are better than the large, steady firm. It means that the energy and focus are different. Sometimes, the mix of these cultures creates an “opposites attract” scenario and can be quite effective. In other situations, the tempo can be discordant and create a barrier to a good cultural fit. The same applies when similar culture types collide: the mixture can be an accelerant or an impediment for both organizations. Either way, these culture types are easy to identify and you can quickly tell if the combination is additive or not – if you’re looking for it.

…when similar culture types collide: the mixture can be an accelerant or an impediment for both organizations.

Assessing Culture Fit

When assessing culture fit between your organization and a potential business partner, vendor, or service provider, here are some questions to ask:

  1. What is the mission and vision of the organization?
  2. What is the story? How did they get here?
  3. Are we heading in similar directions? Are there shared priorities?
  4. How does the company prioritize people? Is it similar or different from how we prioritize people?
  5. How does the company position itself? Is it compatible with us?
  6. Do I like more than one person from the company? Have I met or talked to other employees?
  7. Have I met their leadership? Culture typically reflects priorities at the top.
  8. Where have they failed? How have they overcome setbacks? Are they willing to share? (I love this one)

How do we incorporate the cultural fit element into our assessments? Making it a priority is a great start. As mentioned earlier, this doesn’t mean that you don’t search for the best solution. Including culture fit as a measure of a B2B relationship augments the solution search by reinforcing some softer priorities and recognizing that, in some cases, a stronger relationship may provide more value than the best technical fit.

  • Jonathan

    This could be a whole book, a novel, about ‘Mary’ who, as the founder and lead culture setter, struggles mightily with staff, bankers, suppliers, customers and supportive friends who just ‘don’t get it’ when it comes to understanding the growth and quality-of-life potential if everyone could just all get on board believing success – new customers, new products, new markets – will happen.

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