Company Culture

The 8 Essential Steps to Building a Winning Company Culture

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What do shoes, airplanes, and a mouse have in common? Think more specifically Zappos, JetBlue, and Disney, and a universal and fundamental theme emerges. These companies are all revered for their thriving and coveted corporate cultures – cultures that customers and employees are falling in love with and, thereby, helping drive business success.

Culture can make or break a company. According to a Bain & Company Survey of 365 companies in Europe, Asia, and North America, 81 percent believe that a company lacking a high-performance culture is doomed to mediocrity. Fewer than 10 percent succeed in building one.

Startups take notice. Culture is incredibly important because it sets the tone for everything from how the early team interacts to the kinds of hires made to how customers are treated. One mistake can set you back months. On the other hand, you have the opportunity set your company apart by building a winning culture.

Look at companies like Facebook, a great example of a culture known for famously encouraging its engineers to “move fast and break things.” Think about how you can infuse culture from the word “go” and make it part of your success story.

Related: Be Like Google, Facebook and Apple, and Craft a Company Mantra to Live By

Here are eight steps for creating a winning corporate culture:

1. Learn from the past.

We all have experiences from which we can draw valuable lessons. If you’re a first-time founder, examine the corporate cultures of organizations you worked for previously. What worked for you in those cultures? What didn’t? Similarly, if you’re a seasoned entrepreneur, think about the cultures you already created. What cultivated success?

2. Create a culture that aligns with your core values.

This is your business. You’re driving it, and you need to infuse who you are into what you do. Otherwise, it won’t work. Think about your personality and, more importantly, your core values. Are you ingeniously innovative or unwittingly creative? Do you foster a work hard, play hard mentality? Are you relaxed but also expect the best from people? If so, create that balance of work and play. Are you a true collaborator? Then advance that behavior in your company and promote the people who get it. Do you expect the Disney level of customer service from every one at every level? Then hire people who display that spark, smile, and personality.

Take time to reflect on who you are, the vibe you want to radiate, and, ultimately, the kind of culture that fits both you and your brand.

3. Find great people who complement you.

Round out your corporate culture by hiring people who offer different experiences than yours. As tempting as it may be, avoid hiring a "mini-me." Identify your strengths and weaknesses, then fill in the gaps.

For example, if you are an amazing innovator but fall short when it comes to running the numbers, bring in a savvy financial officer. If you are a risk taker, hire someone who is more conservative. Diverse perspectives grounded in a shared vision are worth their weight in gold. Again, just be sure not to sacrifice your core values. 

4. Communicate.

One of Zappos's 10 core values is, “Build open and honest relationships with communication.” Founder Tony Hsieh exemplified this value when he announced Amazon’s $850 million acquisition of Zappos in an open letter to employees in 2009. The company continues to thrive, as does its coveted culture.

So when developing culture, talk with each other. This might sound trite, but it’s easier said than done. People need to be able to share their ideas and speak openly without fear of repercussion. People want their opinions heard, and they want to feel good.

Related: How to Keep Company Culture Alive After an Acquisition

5. Have fun.

It’s simple: a little fun goes a long way. Granted this looks different for every business. A tech company can get away with more fun than perhaps a law firm or hospital. But there are ways to engage employees in activities that feel less like work. For example, declare half-day Fridays during the summer, take your team indoor rock climbing, go to a wine tasting after work hours or hold a contest. Just do something out of context and give people the freedom to relax, show up in a different way and have fun.

6. Invite people to drink the Kool-Aid.

Bottom line, every one needs to be a believer. If you don’t stand for anything, you stand for nothing.

When JetBlue hires new crewmembers, the company invites them and their spouses to JetBlue University for orientation in Orlando. They introduce guests to top leadership, show brand videos, share stories, fly simulators and wine and dine them. In other words, they invite them to drink the “blue juice.” And it works. JetBlue’s annual net profit rose from $58 million in 2009 to $168 million in 2013. As Henry Harteveldt, a senior analyst at Hudson Crossing, points out, “The airline succeeds because it places such great emphasis on internal communications and creating and sustaining a positive work environment.”

7. Work as a team.

Stop thinking of people in terms of “employees” or “departments.” You’re all part of the same team, so act like it. Rallying around the idea “we’re all in this together” builds a sense of unity and community, which fosters culture.

The best people are team players who truly support the company, its founders, management and co-workers.
 

8. Maintain and carefully evolve your culture.

Culture is not something you put in place and expect it to stay forever. It takes work. You need to nurture it. You also need to give it the freedom to evolve. If you cling too tightly to your culture, you risk smothering it. Protect it, yes, but understand that your culture will shrink and swell -- and that’s okay so long as it maintains its core.

I learned this firsthand when I started a company centered on a remote, relaxed culture that relied heavily on technology to get everything done. It didn’t fit and led me to hire the wrong kind of people for the company I sought to build. I changed the culture, mapped everything back to it, and it worked. Success followed. 

Also, evaluate people on your team against the backdrop of your culture. Effectively evolving your corporate culture sometimes requires making hard decisions to let go of people who don’t evolve with it.

As Zappos’s Hsieh says, “Chase the vision, not the money.” If you create a culture where people love coming to work and are moving in the same direction, you will land where you set your heights. Millions of startups pop up every year. Be among the successful minority who break out in large part because they hold steadfastly to building and sustaining a strong culture.

Related: The Importance of Culture When Starting Up