Three Keys to Creating a Great Company Culture

Whether you like it or not, your company/business/organization/firm has a culture. Every business does. The only question is, “Do you like the one you have?”

If you’re like most business owners and/or entrepreneurs, chances are the answer is, “Not completely.” So why is that?

Well, probably for a couple of reasons.

1. You didn’t design it. It just happened.
2. Because you didn’t design it, your culture is probably most reflective of you (both the good parts and the bad ones)
3. Because you didn’t design it, it’s probably sporadic in its application (i.e. it can feel somewhat like Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde at times)
4. Chances are that different people and/or different departments have difficult cultures (i.e. sales has one, engineering another, customer service another, etc.)
5. Because there’s no clarity on exactly what the culture is, it’s not enforced consistently which leads to an even less consistently lived out culture
6. Your choice: _____________________

Any way you add it up, the end result is still the same—a company culture that you’re not completely excited by. And the outcomes of not having a great company culture aren’t that positive, are they? Here are just a few

1. Poor customer service (it depends on if a customer interacts with Suzi or Bobby)
2. Poor performance internally
3. Morale problems
4. Lower employee retention (especially with key talent)
5. Feelings of favoritism among employees (Joe gets in trouble for X, while Ruth always gets away with it)
6. Slower growth
7. More internal friction
8. More management time invested in correcting problems, etc.

So, what can you do to avoid those issues and create the kind of company culture that you want and will be happy with? Well, here are three keys that will help get you there.

I. Clearly Define Your Culture (Including at the Micro-level)

If you or your people aren’t crystal clear on what your culture is, it’ll be infinitely more difficult/near impossible for them to create it. If Joe is a humble sacrificial person who’s always ready to help someone out even if it’s inconvenient for him, that’s what he’ll do apart from anyone telling him. However, if Frank is a narcissist who’s entire life is self-absorbed in what he can do that’s best for himself, chances are he’ll never go out of his way, at least not on a consistent basis, to help others, especially when it’s inconvenient for him.

Apart from a clearly defined culture of what’s acceptable and what’s not, most people will revert to their own natural tendencies—which is not a great way to run a company.

In addition, since culture is created by leaders, it’s not unusual for a small business to have multiple cultures because different leaders have different core values.

The way out of these twin problems is to have a debate and discussion with you and your top team about what kind of culture you want to have—and then give some practical, tactical implications of what that cultural value looks like.

One of the mistakes a lot of business leaders make when deciding on their core values is they pick core values that they think people outside the organization would like. However, core values should reflect how you want your employees to act. Culture is your 24/7 driver for how employees should act without ever having to ask you about what they should do or how they should act.

For example, some businesses value excellence, others don’t. Some value speed, others don’t. Some value integrity, others don’t. Some value service, others don’t. Some value honesty, others don’t. Some value teamwork, others don’t. In the core values world, it’s not about right or wrong, it’s about creating clarity on the handful of values that you think will create the kind of culture you want (Note: I think five is the most core values you should pick. Anything more than that is too hard for most people to remember).

However, just listing a core value doesn’t create clarity. For example, what is excellence? If you don’t define it and give some practical examples of what it looks like, “everyone,” will have differing opinions as to what excellence is.

In my case, I would say, “Excellence is doing the best you can with what you have in the amount of time you have to do it.” So, if someone has a day to get a project done or a month, excellence looks different. If someone has $50 or $5,000 or $50,000 to get a project done, excellence looks different.

That said, I would also give some practical examples of what excellence looks like. For example, excellence means no spelling or grammatical errors on communications going out like emails or marketing pieces (or at least double or triple checking them first—even books get printed with typos, but you get the idea). Excellence means customizing sales materials for each client with current design trends and fonts. Or excellence means adding that little bit extra that surprises a client/customer. Or excellence means delivering a product/service that works the first time a client/customer uses it. Etc. You get the idea. You have to give some examples of what that a core value looks like. You can’t simply say, “Our core value is X.”

So, have you created clarity on what your core values and culture are for your company? And have you defined several concrete examples of what those values look like when lived out in real life?

II. Continually Cast Vision About Your Cultural Values

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I often talk about casting vision and repeating yourself. Why? Because most people forget what they’ve heard within a few hours and until you keep repeating yourself your employees won’t know if your serious about this or if this is just another “flavor of the month” issue for you.

As you probably know, most employees are skeptical about anything new passed on from a leader. They assume, “Here we go again. Sally just read another management book or went to another seminar and now she’s trying out this new thing on us again. Let’s just stay the course. This too will blow over within the next few weeks and she’ll be on to her next new thing next month.”

It’s not until you stay the course for MONTHS that most employees will begin to believe that this initiative—this core values/culture thing—is something more than just a “flavor of the month” thing for you. So, make a mental note. Until people are mimicking you, you haven’t communicated it enough. For more on this idea, read this post.

So, how do you keep communicating it? By showing your team examples of it (both good and bad). For example, let’s say Tasha puts together a killer sales presentation that’s head and shoulders above anything anyone on your team has done. During a team meeting or in an email or video (especially if you’re a distributed or virtual team), share the story of Tasha and link it to the core value.

“Hey team, I have to share this with you. You know we’ve been talking about excellence a lot these past few months and a lot of you are really picking it up. For example, this past week, Joe showed me Tasha’s new presentation she put together for ABC corp. and it looks amazing. In fact, let me show you a couple of pages of her presentation. This is what we mean when we talk about excellence. Great job, Tasha.”

On the other hand, you can also use negative examples.

“Unfortunately, not all of us are living up to the excellence standard. Last week I was cc’d on a number of emails from different teams here and I was shocked at some of the spelling and grammatical errors. Here are a few examples … Remember, before you send an email, double or triple check it. When you see a word underlined with a red or green line, fix it. Why? Because if we’re not excellent in the little things, we won’t be excellent in the big things. Excellence is a habit. It doesn’t just happen when you want it to happen. Excellence is a way of living. So make sure you pay attention to your spelling and grammar before you send any emails, reports or presentations this week.”

Do this every day, every week and every month.

So, how are you doing at consistently casting vision about your core values?

III. Consistently Hold People Accountable To Your Core Values

This is where the rubber meets the road—and where most leaders fail. Several years ago I was working with a large firm and as part of that engagement, I interviewed the top ten leaders of that firm. During that interview process in different meetings, several of those leaders all did the same thing. When I asked them about the culture of the firm four of them literally picked up the list of core values (inscribed on a glass pyramid) and said, “These are all bunk. We don’t really believe in them. They look good in print but we’re not willing to do what’s necessary to enforce them so they’re meaningless.”

That’s how you discover what the real values are of any organization—what’s enforced. If a business says, “We value teamwork” but the people who get all the praise are mavericks—and no one challenges them for their lack of teamwork, then what that business really values is individual achievement.

Or if a business says, “We value respect,” but their top producer, who does 3X the next sales person, is a disrespectful, egotistical maniac and he/she never gets called for it, then what that business really values is money over anything else.

Or if a business says, “We value generosity” but the leader or a member of the top team is stingy or if the top team votes themselves a nice bonus but small bonuses for everyone else or if the members of the top team of that business don’t give their time generously to other employees—and no one ever gets called on it, then what that business really values is selfishness and taking care of #1.

It’s all about consistency (especially showing no favoritism). And, this is key, when you hold people accountable, you need to reference the value that they’re breaking (Note: this is often the missing key to turning accountability into a culture driver).

For example, you could say,

“George, I just read that email you sent out to our top thirty customers and noticed two spelling errors and three grammatical mistakes. What were you thinking?”

Or, you could say,

“George, I just read that email you sent out to our top thirty customers. Did you happened to do a spelling and grammar check before sending it out? I noticed two spelling errors and three grammatical mistakes. In light of our core value of excellence, do you think your email met that standard?”

Completely different conversation.

So, as you look at how you respond when someone does something that doesn’t fit with your culture/core values, would you say you call people on not being congruent with it (or them)? And do you do that consistently—regardless of who the individual is who broke that value/culture statement? Remember, favoritism is a culture killer.

If you want to create a great company culture, there are a lot of different things you can do to build it. But, at its core, these are the three simple keys that will drive it.

1. Clearly define your culture (including at the micro-level)
2. Continually cast vision about your cultural values
3. Consistently hold people accountable to your core values

If you focus on these three key ideas, you’ll find that you’re finally creating the kind of company culture that you’re proud of … completely! Plus, it’ll make your job infinitely easier.

To your accelerated success!

P.S. If you have some additional ideas about creating a great culture, make sure you add them in the comments section below (or click here >> if you’re reading this by email or RSS feed)