Company culture is a strange thing: If you don't proactively work to shape it, it will shape itself. Two years ago, I had an employee who was consistently late to work. Alexandria was an account manager, liaising daily with key clients and overseeing the production and delivery of marketing assets.
At that time, we had 10 employees and had just moved into a beautiful new co-working space with ocean views--Village Workspaces--near Santa Monica, California. It was a big milestone for our company, and I remember how excited the team was to see the stunning views for the first time.
In addition to hip feng shui design, our new office had beer on tap, and the team indulged in celebration. Unfortunately, the "hangover" lasted longer than expected.
Mimicking bad behavior
Alexandria would usually roll into the office around 9:30 a.m., and sometimes show up past 10:00 a.m. At first, I let it slide. I wanted to be a likable CEO and didn't want work to feel like a boot camp.
But as the weeks went by, I noticed other employees began to follow Alexandria's lead. And it wasn't just that our team was showing up late: They started leaving early, too.
I had everyone sign a form agreeing to a strict arrival time of 8:30 a.m., but it ended being a temporary fix. When I traveled to New York, as I do often, I noticed that Alexandria would take advantage of my absence, signing in to Slack in the late morning.
The moment of truth came to me when I was staying in a hotel near Times Square. I woke up one morning at 6:30 a.m., opened the curtains to my hotel room, and right across the street, saw a large board room filled with people. They were wearing suits, ties, or dresses, and watching attentively and alert while someone was presenting.
There were at least 20 people in the conference room--twice the size of my entire company. It occurred to me that whoever these people were and whatever company they worked for, they were motivated to show up for work--a full three hours before my team usually straggled in. I was jealous, inspired, and at that moment, fully determined to change my company culture.
Consistent to the end
When I came back to Los Angeles, I asked Alexandria to meet me at 9:30 a.m. Sure enough, she was 30 minutes late.
I fired Alexandria shortly after she came in, and even though she seemed disappointed, I think she had been waiting for the ax to drop. She shuffled into the office to pack her belongings, and the team watched silently as she walked out for the last time.
I'll never forget what happened the next morning, because by the time I arrived at 8:30 a.m., the entire team was heads down, plugging away. It was as if a light switch had been flipped on overnight.
It's incredible how much work can be accomplished--and how quickly--when everyone is rowing in the same direction. Suddenly, marketing assets for campaigns were being produced in half as much time, and our pipeline of new accounts nearly doubled. I also noticed that the team was more proactive, running internal strategy meetings on their own and taking initiative to mitigate campaign risks.
There was a new energy that had been infused into the company, and a sense of purpose. My decision to fire Alexandria sent a clear message: The company has certain expectations of all employees, and team members should not take their jobs for granted.
Here are two strategies to set a strong company culture for your business:
When you see a problem, address it early--before it spreads
As Simon Sinek once said, "People don't care what you do--they care why you do it." It's critical to communicate a clear values system to your team; I recommend doing it at least once a year. Your team is looking for you to lead them, so give them something they can latch onto. Inspire them emotionally and they will follow you.
I made the mistake of letting Alexandria stick around too long, and it signaled to others that showing up late to work was acceptable. I should have addressed Alexandria's tardiness immediately by giving her a written warning and fired her faster if she continued to flaunt our work schedule. Root out problems before they spread like a virus and shape your culture by owning it.
Firing an employee is never easy, but sometimes it's required to set a strong example. Even though I'm not running a boot camp, one thing is for sure--I am running a business.