6 Steps to Build Your Company Culture
Over twenty years now I’ve been coaching business owners on the value of building a systems driven company. But what about those situations that your staff finds themselves in for which there isn’t a clear system to lay out how best to handle it?
This is where your company culture comes in. Your company culture is the hidden hand that shapes your team’s behavior so that they effectively handle those situations that by their very nature are ambiguous or nuanced.
Of course, you could require that in these situations your team turns to their internal manager, but I think we can likely agree that this solution is less than ideal, especially with a remote team.
What we all want as business leaders is to give our team what they need to autonomously do great work and make smart business decisions, even in these ambiguous circumstances for which you’ve never explicitly told them how to handle them. Remote culture and employee engagement is becoming a critical part of success as remote employees are adapting to a new workplace altogether.
What is Company Culture?
Your culture is the sum total of your values, beliefs, traditions, and accepted standards of behavior. It’s the way your company views, prioritizes, and behaves to get things done.
Here is a simple 6 step process to intentionally lay the foundation for your company’s culture.
How to Build Company Culture
Step One: Clarify your company culture 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?
How do you want your team to treat each other when they see things differently?
How do you want your team to make a decision about how to prioritize their likely overfull to do lists?
What do you want the mood and feeling to be in your office?
When you list out your company’s core values, consider adding in a statement that can be behaved. This gives your values a concrete quality that is easier for your team to internalize.
For example, with my business coaching company, Maui Mastermind, two of our company values are:
• “We do what we say we’ll do and hold other people accountable to the same standard.” (Notice we say it this way versus just to say “integrity”. It’s hard to behave “integrity”, but it is easy to expect to do what we say we’ll do.)
• “We eat our own cooking.” (This is our way of clarifying to our team that we follow our own business coaching best practices. We create our own 1-page quarterly action plan every 90 days and do our weekly “Big Rock Reports” just like we coach our clients to.)
Again, notice how both these values 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.
Step Two: Create a written draft of what you want your company culture to be.
Don’t do this in one sitting. Take 30 minutes and start a draft of this. Sit with it for a week or two, then come back for a second take.
What behaviors would be the norm at your organization?
How would someone be able to observe how your team has internalized 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?
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 company culture?
Ask your key staff for their observations on this. They will likely see things differently than you. Welcome their perspective and use their input to inform this process over time. And this is a process that unfolds over time, not just a “sit down one time” event.
Step Four: Revise your company culture that you wrote up to reflect what currently describes your organization, and what elements are aspirational, or a “work in progress.”
This becomes your road map of the culture you want to build. In the words of Stephen Covey, “Begin with the end in mind.”
Step Five: Apply gentle pressure, relentlessly to shape your company culture.
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 Six: 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.
High performers find a team with dead weight de-motivating. 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.
Remember, culture is the invisible hand that shapes behavior and tells people how to behave when no one is watching.
How to Strengthen Company Culture
Once you have established your culture, you will want to reinforce it at every chance you get. Here are some ways to help deepen your teams belief and buy-in to the culture you have built:
Here are 5 suggestions to help you – the leader – establish and reinforce your company culture.
- Celebrate victories and behavior in alignment with your core values and brand immediately.
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 it is these small steps that accumulate into your culture.
Send out a company-wide 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.
Look for small stories that symbolize deeper meaning.
You don’t need to only highlight victories. Instead, also look for small occurrences in the company that symbolize deeper values you want the company to absorb.
For example, if Carol came in on Saturday to double check that the Acme redesign was still running smoothly, and you want that same degree of diligence and care to be core values, then publically thank Carol for it. Ask her how it went, what did she learn, and then share those insights again with your whole team (which lets you again subtly retell the underlying story of Carol caring enough to check on the redesign on Saturday.)
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’s faces when I announced we were firing one of our largest clients who 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, they took some of our best people to keep them happy, people that the company needed on other projects. That decision to fire that client helped reinforce that in our company, we acted on our strategic plan and took the long term plan very seriously.
Start from the point of recruitment – bring your values and culture front and center into your hiring, selection, and orientation of new team members.
Build into your hiring process checks for personality and values fit with your company’s. Make sure that when you bring on a new hire that explaining the company values isn’t just a 10 minute talk, but it is something you share by having multiple people share stories and experiences to make those values and the culture real.
If you want high performance and personal responsibility to be an integral part of your company culture, you’ve got to cull out your low performers – now!
Every company has them. Those team members who everyone know is 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.
These 5 suggestions will help you make strong 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.