For small- to medium-sized businesses, "company culture" is more than just the latest trend. While a business's culture is an intangible and difficult-to-measure element, it's also vitally important to a company's ongoing success.
Inspirational stories abound online about the successful organizational cultures of well-known companies. Reading about the culture of large companies such as Google, Netflix and Zappos is one thing. But how does the owner of a small- to medium-sized business develop and implement the practices and policies that will enable them to build a positive company culture within their own company?
What is company culture?
The term company culture may conjure images of team celebrations and snacks for employees. But while such incentives do play a role in cultivating an ideal company culture, the term itself encompasses much more than simply rewards.
The word “culture" in the phrase is a key point: Similar to a country's culture, company culture is all about the purpose, values and expectations shared by the people working within the company. And when it comes to company culture, the size of the business actually has very little relevance to the effectiveness of its culture. Even if you're the head of a company with only one employee (you, the sole entrepreneur), the culture your business develops will have a profound effect on its success.
Because the foundation of any business' culture will be based on the company's specific purpose, values and norms, every business builds a culture that's unique to its needs and identity. Shane McCarthy, CMO of Sandboxx, a communication platform for military families, describes his company's culture with these three words: accomplish, empathize and experiment. Christoph Seitz, co-owner of containerized shipping company CFR Rinkens, on the other hand, uses collaborative, innovative and inclusive to describe CFR Rinkens' culture.
Both businesses have created company cultures relevant to their distinctive visions and missions. In other words, company culture isn't one size fits all. Your company's culture will be uniquely positioned to serve its overall goals and vision.
Benefits of a positive company culture
There's a reason large, successful businesses such as Google do more than pay lip service to the concept of company culture. Research has shown that a positive company culture has a powerful effect on a number of factors that, taken as a whole, significantly influence a company's success.
The variables impacted by a thriving, positive customer culture include:
- job satisfaction
- employee retention
- creativity and innovation
In addition to the inspiring examples set by large, well-known corporations, the following tips can help business owners looking to grow and maintain a positive culture within their own companies.
Know your company's core values
Because your company's culture is built on the foundation of its core values, it's important to take time to assess these values. Ask yourself, are these values reflected in the existing culture? And, if not, what kinds of changes need to be made?
Engaging in in-depth assessment isn't something to be taken lightly and can often take more than a single meeting with your top management.
Four years after launching his company, Online Optimism, a digital marketing agency based in New Orleans, CEO Flynn Zaiger realized that each of his employees, himself included, had a different view of what Online Optimism meant.
Rather than making an executive decision, Flynn set up weekly one-hour meetings with all staff members with the ultimate goal of crafting the company's mission, vision and values together. “We assumed it would take a month of weekly meetings — it actually took us a year," he says. “But after having a year of discussions of what it meant to work at our organization, we came to something that a couple of years later, still rings true to our brand and our staff."
Make cultural fit a priority
While it's easy to be dazzled by a candidate's skill set and work background, your company culture should stay top of mind during your hiring process. At its core, culture is about people, and assessing any potential new team members for cultural fit will go a long way toward cultivating the kind of company culture that's in line with your business's core values and beliefs.
Yaniv Masjedi, CEO of Nextiva, a business communication platform, puts it this way: “Don't just hire for raw skills — hire for heart." When bringing on a new team member, "it's a long-term play," he says. "Someone can learn new protocols within a few months. They can learn a new skill in six months to a year. But learning how to be a decent person? That's something I'd really rather they bring with them."
Recognize the power of feedback and engagement
Communication plays an important role in the development of a culture that properly reflects your business's vision, but growing the culture you want requires more than top-down communication. Leveraging the power of employee feedback and engagement is a key step in developing the right culture for your company.
For Jennilyn Adefuin, people and culture specialist at SEO software company CanIRank, it's all about championing transparency. “It's important to get feedback and constructive criticism as your business is growing," she notes. “This also allows employees to feel more involved and invested in the company. They can trust that their voices are being heard and that we're all in this together."
Lead by example
Culture is a nebulous, intangible concept. Developing and promoting culture requires a lot more than simply telling employees what the existing culture is. Leadership and top management drive the direction of your company's culture, and this means you and your top personnel must be the culture you want to develop and maintain for your company.
Larry Liu, CEO of online grocery retailer Weee!, is very clear about this. “Examine yourself to see who you truly are," he advises. “The founder/CEO will be the steward of a company's culture. If the culture is not what the leader believes in, it's never going to work."
Focus on creating an environment that inspires
Many business owners are used to being the driving force behind any new initiative their company takes. But company culture is that intangible something that springs, as its name suggests, from a deep sense of community. In other words, you should not strive to be the sole source of inspiration for your employees.
Instead, leadership coach Erin Hatzikostas, founder of b Authentic inc. and former CEO of Payflex, a 1,000-employee healthcare company, advises business owners to focus on creating an inspiration “platform." That is, build inspiration by enabling both people and processes so that your staff becomes empowered to inspire each other.
While building this kind of inspirational community can be challenging, Hatzikostas suggests solutions such as “giving your team full control over the development of leadership events and carving out time at team meetings to simply share best practices and cheer each other on." The end goal? “Ultimately," she says, “you want to create an environment where people are encouraged to experiment, look silly and fail."
Developing and promoting a positive, thriving company culture is a task that deserves top billing on any business owner's priority list. While building culture takes time and commitment, most successful small-business owners will tell you they see big returns on their investment into their company's culture.