It’s easy to overlook or ignore culture when you’re in the startup phase, because there’s just so much other stuff to worry about.
Creating culture is not easy by any stretch. It’s complex, often misunderstood and easy to get wrong.
Culture relates to everything human in your business. How you treat people, how you behave. Your business culture is your business character.
“Character is the magnet that emotionally attracts people to engage your services,” writes David Reeve in his 2016 book Unleash Culture: Discover Greatness Within. “Character is a catalyst for retaining, inspiring and attracting great people. Thus having an amazing, awe-inspiring culture is the foundation for your brand’s growth.”
Businesses either design their cultures or let them develop, as Reeve says, “by default.”
It’s not just for-profit businesses that should pay attention to culture. Alison Rapping counsels, coaches and trains non-profits in the U.S. in the art of creating movements.
“It always trips people up,” says Rapping. “Right away they tend to focus on fundraising but there’s no point worrying about fundraising until you’ve got the culture piece done.”
Once negative culture takes root, it’s like an invasive weed in your garden. Pulling it up by its roots will not eradicate it. It takes a complete overhaul of the garden – remove and destroy all plants, rework the soil to infuse new nutrients, plan the layout of the new plants and slowly add new healthy plants.
“The best approach is to try a concept on for size, see how it fits, make changes where necessary and then when it starts to feel just right, introduce another concept and so on,” says Reeve. “It can take years to implement everything. But the incremental gains you will achieve will culminate in a significant culture shift.”
There are some easy ways to kill culture. Here are some obvious ones:
- Always be late to meetings. Nothing says you disrespect others’ time more than being late.
- Don’t bother setting up systems that help your people do their work.
- Blame staff, clients, customers or partners – anybody except the leadership team – for problems with culture.
- Spend more time and energy recruiting and hiring than motivating and inspiring current team members.
- Limit participation in brand goal-setting exercises to the top leadership.
Essentially, culture can be the fraying carpet that trips you up – or it can lay the groundwork for success. Culture reflects the character of your brand and of your people. Character is responsible for the emotional hook that can cultivate a fan club.
So here’s how to start building a great culture:
- Get clear on your purpose, your why, preferably in four words or less, and articulate your top four core values. Align all decisions with these two foundational elements.
- Engage across and throughout the brand for strategic planning purposes, and recognize that doing so will help you build internal brand ambassadors.
- Adopt trust and transparency: share all relevant business metrics (revenue, gross margins, performance metrics, gross profit, client retention, staff retention, etc.) with all associated with the brand.
- Practise gratitude, optimism and humility. Pay attention to the emotional energy of your brand and as leader, take accountability for setting the tone.
- Incorporate character and not just skill into your brand’s story, and then tell it to everyone, everywhere. You can have a story without being clear on your culture but you can’t have a strong culture without being clear on your story.
“Understand what you’re aiming for in terms of what your vision for the world is,” says Rapping. “And then really understand what kind of culture you need to create in order to make that dream possible.”
Management consultant Peter Drucker said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The sooner that becomes a critical focus of your business, the better.
Between them, Boni and John Wagner-Stafford have five decades of experience as entrepreneurs and/or providing consulting services to other small businesses across Canada. Boni and Joni are the authors of Rock Your Business: 26 Essential Lessons to Plan, Run, and Grow Your New Business From the Ground Up.