"Can we just have a goal to stop people from stealing my lunch out of the refrigerator?" This was how one of my early -- and failed -- attempts at creating a sustainable company culture evolved.

To be certain, my business partner and I had the best intentions. We had just started our first business, a toy development company, and we were excited to apply all our leadership training and experience in a shared strategic planning process with our small team of employees.

A little background -- after receiving my MBA, I worked with a business and economic development contractor that served USAID. My first post was in Central Asia, where I worked with former Soviet companies to hash out large-scale strategic plans as they transitioned from communism to a global market economy. 

My future business partner also worked on the project, and after some time, we decided to leave and pursue our entrepreneurial ambitions. Fast forward, and we found ourselves in South Carolina running a business right as the Great Recession was throwing markets into turmoil. Even with the uncertain economy, we were driving ahead -- much like most ambitious entrepreneurs.

A few months after we had concluded our first hiring phase, we decided that our organization lacked a cohesive company culture, and given our experience, we had no reason not to have one. Unfortunately, up to that time, we were, as the saying goes, too busy working in the business to work on the business.

So, we decided to invite all of our employees -- about six at the time -- to take part of our strategic planning process, hoping it would create camaraderie and inspire a productive working atmosphere. We rented apartments and a small conference room for a weekend in a local hotel on the beach (in the winter, of course, because we couldn't afford it any other time), stocked it with refreshments and snacks and white boards and stickies, and were prepared to create the strategy and company culture that would take us to the top of the Inc 500 list.

In reality, what happened was that the evening deescalated quickly into a gripe session, with discussions of pay rates to parking spaces to, yes, lunch theft. We never, in fact, got around to setting a collaborative company vision or establishing strategic goals. We did, however, establish rules for lunches and priority parking, as well as break up a few fights.

The lesson I learned was simple. Both my business partner and I had for years worked in corporate and consulting settings and dealt with high-achieving, type-A business leaders. We were accustomed to attitudes and management styles that were typically forward looking. These people existed at the top of the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs and demonstrated all the characteristics of self fulfillment and self actualization.

What I failed to realize was that almost all of our employees existed at the middle to bottom half of the hierarchy. For these people, priorities included job stability and providing for their families. They are not worried about Inc 500 lists or the ambitions of the company founders to appear on magazine covers. They want to know they are getting a paycheck and had a job in the morning.

So when we started talking vision and goals for the next five to 10 years, our employees scoffed, simply wanting to know about tomorrow.

For entrepreneurs, understanding where their partners exist on this hierarchy is important when establishing company culture. For certain, your company culture needs to provide inspiration and instill excitement for the work everyone does, but it cannot alienate parts of your team.

Entrepreneurs can avoid the embarrassing planning session we had by first surveying all of the employees individually, one-on-one, to determine their ambitions and goals. Then, when you pull everyone together, drive the conversation to include everyone's feedback. 

Vision should always be grand and bold, but setting a company-driven mission and organization goals that appeal to everyone will help build the cohesive and exciting company culture you are looking for.

Published on: Aug 25, 2019
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