If you've read any of my earlier articles you'll see how strongly I champion building and refining systems and controls to become the structural backbone to operating your company.

But what happens when novel situations come up that you don't have a system to detail out how you want your team to respond?

For most businesses this means turning to one or two key team members, often the founders of the company, for direction on how to handle these new situations.

Take the example of Klayton Tapley, owner of The Fireplace Place in Atlanta, GA. Klayton's two locations do several million dollars a year of retail and commercial business. (Disclosure: Klayton's company has been a business coaching client of my company, Maui Mastermind, for over four years.)

So how should a sales rep in Klayton's company handle a new situation? Obviously they'll first look to their sales manual... then they'll rely on their 13 week sales rep training course... but where do they find the way to handle a situation not covered in the sales manual or training program?

What about his project coordinators? How do they deal with a customer need not in their internal systems?

The answer is they lean heavily on the internal culture that Klayton and his team have painstakingly built over the prior years.

Your company culture gets built--bit by bit--over the course of years. It is the sum total of the absorbed values and unstated "way we do things around here." If it is built wisely, it will help your team handle novel situations that you have no system to outline. One way to think about culture is it is the invisible hand that shapes your team's behaviors when no one is looking.

In an earlier article I shared 6 concrete ways you can reinforce your company culture, in this article I want to give you a five step process to intentionally craft your own company culture. Think of this as the process you need to take before you work to reinforce this culture.

Step One: Clarify your company's core values.

Your company's values are the filters through which you want your team to make any tough decision.

How do you want your team to treat a customer in an emotionally loaded moment? This should be obvious from your company values.

How do you want your team to make a decision about how to prioritize an overfull to do list? Again, this should be clear from your company values.

For my business coaching company, Maui Mastermind, our company values include:

  • We do what we say we'll do and hold other people accountable to the same standard.
  • The mission (helping our clients build a company they love owning again) is always more important than the money.
  • We eat our own cooking.

Notice how on two of these items we used short, simple statements to make our values clear behaviorally. This has proven to be an effective way to lay out your company values, and one which many of our business coaching clients have modeled.

Take the value, "We eat our own cooking." When our Tech Leader Larry is faced with too many requests from internal team members all asking for tech resources to fix or progress their key projects, Larry uses the core value "we eat our own cooking" to help him make the best decision where to focus and invest our company's limited tech budget of time, attention, and money.

He asks, "If I were coaching one of our clients, how would I make this decision?" The answer is easy, "I'd prioritize by company top-level priorities, not by the volume or force with which an internal team member is making his or her specific request of me and our tech team."

See how the value leads Larry to make a smart and appropriate decision without having to turn back to me as the company founder to play traffic cop or "ultimate decider".

The same thing holds true for our other values. For example, if Theresa, our Operations Leader, is dealing with a difficult hotel where we are hosting one of our quarterly business conferences, and the hotel wants to change our arrangement, she looks at our values ("We do what we say we'll do, and hold other people accountable to the same standard") and holds firm to our written agreement.

What if the agreement works against our interests? Well, of course she'll try to find a win-win amendment to that agreement, but in the absence of being able to do so, we'll follow our values and do what we say we'll do. Sure that may hurt us in the short run, but I'm a big believer that in the longer run, but living consistent to a clear, intentionally chosen set of values, you'll company will be much stronger and successful.

Step Two: Create a written draft of what you want your company's culture to be.

Over the next 30 days, set aside a few 45-60 minute blocks of time to just journal on paper what you want your company's culture to look like. What behaviors would be the norm at your company? How would someone be able to observe how your team has internalize your company values in their day-to-day job? What would an outside observer notice about the feel of your company if they spent the day in your offices?

For example, if you were to sit in on one of our company's executive meetings you'd see us follow the same pattern we teach clients to start the meeting--starting off with a quick list of key victories since our last executive meeting two weeks prior. And you're notice that we run the meeting based off a written agenda distributed to all executive team members in advance of the meeting. These are both examples of us behaving the value of "we eat our own cooking."

At Maui our culture is intentionally informal, and we've chosen to be a "low drama" workplace. We believe that business and life brings enough challenges on its own, so we set the norm that it's not okay to heighten drama through our interactions with our team. In our company we talk in respectful tones with each other. Where possible we give people realistic time frames to get things done. We encourage team to turn off work at night and on weekends so that they can have a life. We are quick to cover for each other if a family situation comes up that we need to deal with like a sick relative or a health emergency. These are all parts of our culture.

Take the example of Dr Shekhar Challa, founder of Kansas Medical Clinic, PA, a large multi-disciplinary 10 location medical practice. (Again, disclosure, Dr. Challa and KMC has been a long-term business coaching client.) One of the key components of their company culture is an emphasis on retaining their staff. Their culture treats providers and staff respectfully. If you were to observe their practice for the day you'd notice how the practice leaders invest time and energy in the relationships with their staff. They do their best to listen to their team and support them in doing their functions. You'd also notice how many of their team has been with them for over a decade. This value has been absorbed into their practice culture.

So take the time to draft out what you'd want me to observe about the norms and values your team behaves if I were to visit you at your company for the day.

Step Three: Get a reality check -- How does your company currently line up on your vision of what you want your culture to be?

Imagine you were an outsider looking in, where would you notice things aligning or not aligning between the observed culture and your desired culture?

Take this feedback and use it to refine your written vision of your company culture. Talk with your team about this vision. Get their thoughts and input. This is a process that unfolds over several months, not just a "sit down one time" event.

Step Four: Concretely do five things every week to reinforce your company culture.

This could include:

  • Send out a company-wide email retelling the story of the victory.
  • Highlight an example of a great team member behavior at a meeting.
  • Look for and share company-wide small occurrences in the company that symbolize deeper values you want the company to absorb.
  • Intentionally make the hard decision that shocks your team into learning how seriously you believe in your values.
  • Role model the behavior you want them to internalize--be consistent with it.


Step Five: Revisit and revise your written description of your company culture until you feel it reflects just what you want it to be.

It takes time to feel out what you want your culture to be. But the value of investing in creating the right company culture for your business is worth the investment of time and attention.

For example, a former client and friend Stephanie was able to nurture such a strong culture at her 100 person manufacturing company that it ran profitably for 23 years before she and her husband sold the company for a 20 times multiple.

Remember, culture is the invisible hand that shapes behavior and tells people how to behave when no one is watching.

If you want to learn more about how to scale your business, I'm about to teach a new webinar that will focus on the key steps you need to take to grow your business and get your life back.

If you'd like to join me on this special webinar training, please just click here to learn the details and to register. (It's free.)

Published on: Jun 30, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.