A key challenge business owners face is building an organization independent of them. In other words, how do they create a company that doesn’t rely on them to be there every day to solve challenges or put out fires?
Obviously, sound systems and intelligent internal controls are two major ingredients of a company that is independent of the founder.
But what happens when novel situations come up for which you don’t have a system detailing how your team should respond?
This is where your company’s culture can save the day.
Your company’s culture is the sum total of the values and unstated “way we do things around here” absorbed by your team in your workplace. If the culture is built wisely, it will help your team members handle novel situations themselves. One way to think about culture is as an invisible hand that shapes your employees’ behaviors when no one is looking.
Here are six tips to help you and your leadership team establish and reinforce your company’s culture.
1. Write out a vision of what you want the culture to be. Before you can establish, let alone reinforce, your company’s culture, you need to be clear on what you want it to be. So over the next 30 days, set aside a few 45- to 60-minute blocks of time to write down what you want the culture to look like. What values would you have your staff internalize? How would these internalized values show up in their behavior? What would an outside observer notice about the feel of your company while spending a day in your offices?
Gut Check: How does your company currently line up with your vision of what the culture should be? If you were an outsider looking in, where would you notice the observed culture aligning, and not aligning, with your desired culture?
Take this feedback and use it to refine your written vision of your company’s culture. Talk with your team about this vision. Get their thoughts and input. This is a process that unfolds over several months, not a “sit down one time” event.
2. Immediately celebrate victories and behavior that align with your core values and brand.
Highlight the great behavior; celebrate the story of the success. The closer you make the celebration to the behavior, the more you reinforce the desired value. Over time, these small steps accumulate and become your culture.
Send out a companywide email retelling the story of the victory. Highlight it at a meeting. (Up the ante by creating a memorable physical totem or symbol of this victory, one that you can pass on to the next person to celebrate the next victory.) Stand up and gather everyone’s attention in the office for a standing ovation (or bow down to the excellence that your team member showed–literally!).
You get the idea–reinforce key behaviors that you want other people to internalize.
3. Look for small stories that symbolize deeper meaning.
You don’t need to highlight only victories. Also look for small occurrences in the company that symbolize deeper values you want the staff to absorb.
For example, if Carol came in on Saturday to double-check that the Acme redesign was still running smoothly, and you want the same degrees of diligence and care to be core values, then publicly thank Carol for it. Ask her how it went and what she learned, and then share those insights again with your whole team (which lets you subtly tell the underlying story of how Carol cared enough to check on the redesign on Saturday).
4. Intentionally make the hard decision that shocks your team into learning how seriously you believe in your values.
I remember the surprise on my team members’ faces when I announced we were firing one of our largest clients because it was pushing us in a direction that we just didn’t want to go in. The client was high gross revenue but low and shrinking margin. What’s more, it took some of our best people to keep the client happy, people that the company needed on other projects. The decision to fire the client helped reinforce that our company acted on our strategic plan and took the long-term plan very seriously.
5. Start from the point of recruitment–bring your values and culture front and center into your selection, hiring, and orientation of team members.
Build checks for personality and values fit into the hiring process. Make sure when you bring on a new hire that explaining the company’s values isn’t just a 10-minute talk but something you share by having multiple people share stories and experiences to make those values and the culture real.
6. If you want high performance and personal responsibility to be an integral part of your company’s culture, you’ve got to cull your low performers–now!
Every company has them, those team members who, everyone knows, are just marking time and sliding by. If you give them a pass by not dealing with the situation, the message you’re sending to the rest of your team is that poor performance and excuses are acceptable.
High performers find a team with dead weight demotivating. Cull your lower performers now and replace them with better and better people. Yes, this might cause some short-term pain, but the long-term rewards merit it.
There, you have six suggestions to make culture real in your company. Is it easy? No. But it is worthwhile.
Remember, culture is what empowers your team to deal with novel situations that your systems and controls just don’t cover.
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