How do you measure your business’s culture? How does it fit with other metrics and reportables? Can you measure it, should you – and does it even matter?

These are the questions we’ve been weighing up as we start planning for Contemporary FD 2018 – the third of our annual FD events designed to help you explore the… well, frankly, the less boring and more important aspects of running a high-growth company.

The first two Contemporary FD events were themed around value and risk – more specifically, the FD’s role in managing those things creatively and appropriately.

But in 2018, we’re going to focus on this tough-to-pin-down issue of culture.

Everyone agrees on the importance of company culture in all its facets – ethics, creativity, discipline, respect, ambition, rigour and so on. It features in one of the dominant business aphorisms of our age – Peter Drucker’s “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. (Drucker may never have said it, interestingly.)

Culture is a business school staple and a management guru meal-ticket. It’s the perfect standby for snake-oil salesmen on the conference circuit – who know it sounds great without ever having “done culture” in a meaningful way themselves. (That’s one reason – among many – that we don’t call Contemporary FD a “conference”. And we're sticking to our pledge: "no PowerPoint, no pitches, no press." You can speak freely at this event; and no-one will try to sell you anything.)

And we confess: it’s not breaking any new ground for the finance exec.  If you doubted the importance of having culture on your FD to-do list, here’s a quick reading list (all emphases ours):

It starts with appreciating that the culture of an organisation defines its focus and its attitude to creating long-term (financial) value: “the most effective CFOs use their influence to help make the organization stronger and more flexible in general, and more resilient in the face of shifts and disruptions. These CFOs move beyond encouraging people to use resources efficiently to more sophisticated efforts such as helping build the kind of culture where people naturally want to invest only in projects linked to the capabilities that matter most.” 

That means getting the finance function – and the FD – into the culture game effectivey: “CFOs can influence culture through how they engage their own teams and foster an environment that people want to be part of. Yet the CFO also has a responsibility to positively impact company wide culture by establishing a finance organization that’s easy to work with and provides great service to its internal stakeholders.” 

We’re going to focus a lot on how culture is shaped by bahviour: “A CFO should be a leader of uncompromising integrity. Someone of that stature is more likely to contribute to a positive corporate culture and innovative strategy. Of course, there are some things a CFO must never waiver on, such as compliance, financial management and growth, but knowing how to remain strong in these areas means they will be more successful in adapting as industry changes.” 

It’s also clear that FDs with any kind of HR responsibility (and that’s a lot of you) need more than ever to define the “employee value proposition” – shaping both internal and external metrics. It also means communicating well, inside and outside: “Your culture is a large driver of the external perception of your brand. Making sure you continue to have the thought leaders at your company publish insightful articles and attend key conferences in a speaking capacity, are great ways to convey what your culture represents.” 

Actually understanding what culture is, what you want it to be in your organisation and how to build it is much harder. In this high-growth start-up, it was the CFO that brought rigour to that debate: “Culture isn’t free beer, a nice office or a ping pong table. It’s the composition of the human beings you hire, what they value in life and how they see the world… I think the real turning point for me and when I started to really ‘get’ company culture was when I started to hear that Rob [the CFO] had been given the nickname of ‘The Priest’ — because everyone would confide in him, ask him for advice and meet with him regularly.” 

Well, regardless of all that chatter (and, frankly, often lip-service – you won’t be getting much of that at Contemporary FD), we think culture makes is a perfect subject for our FDs’ gathering. Two reasons:

First, FDs are not remote creatures unaffected by the “touchy feely” stuff that rests with boards. Setting organisational culture is as much their duty as it is the CEO’s or HR director’s or marketing head’s. They need to be able to understand, shape and direct culture in their own functions and across their organisation.

Second, FDs bring to the culture challenge a set of disciplines and attitudes that are rarer elsewhere on the board. They design controls, processes and systems that are central to the question of culture – and they typically won’t accept poor rationales for projects or lax ways of evaluating the “culture piece”.

We’re working on the programme now – the date for the event is 15th March. And if you’re reading this and have a great culture story from your own organisation – and especially if you created a ‘hard’ approach to culture in your own organisation and would like to share it ­– we’d love to hear from you. Email richard.young@gmail.com or your EquityFD, EquityFC, EquityInterim or EquityChair contact.

Contemporary FD is an invitation-only event – so keep an eye on your inbox this autumn…