Free drinks in the company refrigerator. Catered meals. Ping pong tables. Dogs at work. Endless vacation days. Some of these things come to our minds when we think of strong, positive cultures. Indeed, they are often featured in awards and articles about great places to work.
But these things alone do not create culture. Culture is often described as the “personality” of your business—how it feels for customers when they interact with you, and how it feels for employees as they work within your organization. More specifically, one can look at culture as the shared mindsets, feelings, and behaviors that both customers and employees experience within your business. An employee who goes out of her way to help a customer, even when it is personally difficult for the employee, is representing your culture to your customer. On the negative side, when you yell at one of your employees for the fifth time, and tell them that they are idiots, that is creating culture, too.
Some might say: “Well, that is fine for other companies! We don’t have time for all of that soft, squishy stuff! We have a business to run!” Here’s the rub…culture exists whether we are deliberate about it or not. And, as the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Research has found that the majority of big changes in companies (acquiring a competitor, launching a new product line, targeting new customers, opening up in new markets, etc.) fail due to problems within the company’s culture.
Thankfully, culture can also be a competitive advantage. One that is hard to duplicate and difficult for competitors to compete with. Some of the most successful companies in the world today do not just have great products…they have great cultures!
So we have the opportunity to make a choice about our organization’s culture. To be deliberate about it. The best leaders I know are very deliberate about the kind of culture that they reinforce within their businesses and organizations.
The best way to get started-in a deliberate way- is to get together with your team and discuss what kind of culture you want to have. Here are some examples of questions you can discuss :
- What will be our shared mindset about success, customer service, what we focus on during the day and talk about in meetings, what gets rewarded, and what is appropriate behavior for team members?
- What kind of feelings do we want to have and demonstrate as we work with customers, with each other, deal with successes and failures, and think about our competitors?
- What shared behaviors do we agree to? How will we hold ourselves accountable? How will we deal with disagreement and conflict?
You can also ask these same kinds of questions to assess what your culture is now. Comparing your desired culture to your current culture can be very enlightening.
What’s next? Hard work. The most important thing you can do as a business owner or leader is to personally demonstrate the kind of culture that you want in your organization. If you want to have a culture of above and beyond customer service, for example, then you will need to demonstrate that all of the time as you work with customers. Employees follow what you DO more than what you SAY. If you want part of your culture to be everyone arriving on time, but you constantly show up thirty minutes late, you are reinforcing arriving late.
The second thing that can be done to build the culture is to create an environment that reinforces the culture. Great places to look at would be your company’s policies (either written down or how things actually happen), how you pay and promote your people, who gets hired and fired, how success is celebrated and how failure is handled, how decisions are made, how poor performance is addressed, and how disagreements and conflict are dealt with.
One caution: be very careful on who you set up as your company’s “heroes”. If you celebrate, promote, and recognize the top sales person even though he does not represent the culture you say you want, those actions tell your employees what really matters to the organization. Don’t be surprised if more of your employees start to act more like the sales person, and the culture begins to change. It’s part of the human equation we call culture.
Whether or not you have free drinks in the company refrigerator, you can have a great culture. A culture that enables your company to grow, to be successful, and to be different than your competitors. It does take deliberate effort.
But the effort will be worth it.