6 Steps to Building a Strong Company Culture
A Note From The Editor
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This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Company Culture, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
Everyone is familiar with the culture that companies like Apple and Google have built in Silicon Valley. But the truth remains, not everyone can afford that “rock star” type of culture -- and some might not even want it. Every company is different and as a result, the culture will be different, too.
Culture, as defined by Webster’s, is “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.”
In your workplace, your culture is the everyday reality of organizational life. It is not the mission statement, your balance sheets or even the employee handbook alone. The culture is what we do, what we say, the way we behave, the way we treat each other, our products, customers, communities and ourselves.
As entrepreneurs, we left corporate America for a number of reasons, one of them being our dissatisfaction with the company’s culture. We left to create something that fit our dreams, our persona and our vision -- our perfect corporate utopia.
So, how can we as business owners create a strong, and lasting, organizational structure that helps employees become our best ambassadors?
Here are six steps to help you get started:
1. Start with a purpose.
In the beginning, all that matters is building something great and lasting. When the head count is in the single digits, people discuss their soon-to-be culture around the table. Problems are still simple and communication is direct, but as the company starts growing, communication becomes more sporadic (or non-existent), and consensus becomes harder to reach.
To avoid that scenario, have a purpose when you establish your new company’s culture. To create that purpose, understand the "why" of the operation. What (or whom) does your business serve? Whatever your answer is, it should be authentic, inspirational, and aspirational. Companies with a strong purpose are well liked because they feel different -- think Ikea or Apple.
Just don’t think about copying these giants; no one likes a copycat. Instead, do what’s right for your company. Think about what inspires you, then execute it.
2. Define a common language, values and standards.
In order for a culture to be successful, those at your company must speak the same language and be on the same page about what your values are. This common language needs to be understood by everyone in the company -- from the CEO down to the mail room worker. Write down those values. This is an essential element in making your culture withstand the test of time -- it makes them tangible.
You must also have a common set of values, which are your company’s principles, and a common set of standards which will measure how your principles are being upheld.
Only when you have aligned your language, values and standards will you have a cohesive culture. Cohesiveness should be your end goal. It might seem tempting to employ a number of stop-gaps along the way, but that’s only a short-term solution.
In order to create a long-lasting culture everyone understands, that culture will need adaptations as the company grows. Your core values are your constant staples, but the overall culture needs to be malleable enough to acclimate to different employees and changing times.
3. Lead by example.
A culture is shaped by how a company’s leaders act. Every leader needs to internally and externally reflect the company’s values and be its strongest advocates. He or she shouldn’t recite the mission statement as a solution to everything, but should exemplify what the company stands for.
Think about the Virgin brand and how Richard Branson embodies everything the company wants people to see them as: fun, bold, brash and spirited. Leaders who exemplify incredible passion for what they do and have an exemplary work ethic are the main source of inspiration for other employees and those who want to join the company.
As a leader, you need to lead by example and also be radically transparent. It won’t matter one iota if you think you have a great culture, but your employees don’t trust you. Being transparent, even when that's difficult, will go a long way in preserving the culture you originally envisioned.
4. Identify your (cultural) ambassadors.
Every company has them: employees who live, eat and breathe your culture and help everyone else understand who you are as a company and what you stand for. These employees are your biggest advocates because they love the company almost as much as you do -- they are your cheerleaders.
This type of employee can be a very valuable asset. Once you identify who your cheerleaders are, ask them what they like about the current culture, what they don’t like and why culture matters to them. That will help you gauge if you should stay the course or make a few changes to the current culture.
The role of these ambassadors doesn’t diminish with time. On the contrary, their role increases as your company grows and in the end, gives you a competitive advantage. Why? Because customers will remember those who are positive, and knowledgeable about the company (or brand) they represent.
5. Be truthful and always communicate.
Integrity has been defined as “doing the right thing, even when nobody’s watching.” Whatever you do, you must always demand that everyone in your company adhere to being truthful and approach everything with the utmost integrity. Failure to comply is not an option.
Part of being truthful as a leader is being completely honest about your strengths, weaknesses and biases. It’s pretty easy to boast about your talents, but don’t think for a second you don’t have any weaknesses, because you do. This doesn’t apply only to leadership, but to everyone.
As a leader, you must always communicate your values explicitly and continuously, internally and externally. Every employee must understand the culture and why it’s important to preserve it. Self-awareness and communication will be essential when your culture isn’t going all that well. Culture doesn’t have to be a neatly wrapped package, but your communication and truthfulness must never waver. If people can’t trust you, you don’t have a lot to stand on.
6. Treat people right.
It’s been touted by some that corporations are "people," too. I disagree with that notion. People are people. And as a CEO or company leader, you need to treat your employees well, otherwise the culture you’re trying to establish won’t be of much use to you, if you have a high turnover rate.
When you’re thinking about hiring new employees, spend time screening for character rather than skill. Don’t get me wrong: An impressive resume is something to be proud of, and important; but if your character is questionable, you’re not a good fit for my company. Skills can be learned, but it’s much harder to cultivate a good attitude and character.
Hiring someone with impressive skills and a bad attitude is a sure-fire way to sabotage your own culture, but once you’ve hired the right people, treat them right. Once you find someone with the right cultural fit, do everything in your power to develop him or her, and help that person scale.
Remember, there’s no perfect recipe for success. Like any good cook, you might have to do a little trial and error before you find the right blend of ingredients that’ll make your recipe great. Just keep trying.
What is your recipe for success?