You’re probably already aware that you need to be thinking about the culture of the company that you’ve worked so hard to create. Trouble is, there is so much advice out there. And you could be forgiven for thinking that all you need to do is get a few beanbags and fruit baskets and the rest will take care of itself.
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that. As Ben Thompson writes, culture can be a curse as well as a blessing. Those things that made a business successful in the early days can contain the seeds of destruction. It’s a little like people too….we all have our strengths, but these have a dark side that if not understood and moderated can hold us back.
So what can we do to create a sustainable culture that make our employees- and us, happy? And crucially, helps achieve the objectives of the business too?
1. Be yourself, but with more skill
We love this piece of advice. It can help you become a better leader, but the same principle can be applied to your organisation. How? This wisdom acknowledges that just like people, you can’t change the core fundamentals of a business easily. It’s far more effective to harness strengths that are already there, and mitigate the things that aren’t working so well, than attempt a ground-up rebuild. (Although, as Thompson points out, this is precisely what Jobs attempted to do when he exhorted Apple colleagues to stop hating Microsoft)
There isn’t any point in trying to be Google, Facebook or Apple if you aren’t. So many organisations attempt to import cultural beliefs and values off the shelf, from consultants or from businesses they admire. This simply doesn’t work. Culture isn’t something you add to a business like furniture. It comes from within the leaders, who in turn pass it on to the people who chose to work with them. The beliefs and values you have are what drove you to start your business in the first place.
2. Self awareness
But how do you actually understand what your core underlying beliefs are? These are often hidden, and the behaviours on the surface are like the tip of an iceberg. We have mental models that drive us, and these are often very different from what we care to share in public! The best writer on this is Chris Argyris, who has written a number of influential works and is the generally accepted thought leader in this area. If you are serious about mature self reflection and development of your own self awareness, he’s a must read.
It’s worth spending time with your top management team reflecting on the culture and beliefs that drive you. Only when you have surfaced those deep beliefs that you share with your fellow leaders, and your own, can you build a foundation to communicate those more widely. This process can be painful, if you discover there are things you don’t share with most valued colleagues. But its essential to understand sources of conflict that might have plagued you in the past by seeing the world through their eyes. Building empathy in this way is the foundation for true teamwork.
Once you have reached a shared understanding of your own and the leadership team’s beliefs, its time to focus on how these are communicated. How you chose to do this depends on what stage your organisation is at. For a start up its simple. Daily conversations will naturally lead to values and beliefs being shared freely. You will find yourself telling the story of why you started the business and what is important to you regularly. This informs who you hire, who you develop, and the teams you put together. But once you get beyond the size of a large family – roughly, once you can’t talk beyond a couple of pleasantries to everyone in your company, you need to have a deliberate strategy to communicate the things that matter to you.
Communication doesn’t have to be boring. Innovative companies known for their great cultures such as Zappos use all kinds of different methods, such as culture books.
4. Employee involvement
Don’t forget that your people will gradually evolve the culture you started out with. Your business may change and “grow up”. This doesn’t mean you lose what makes you great. It means you embrace growth but keep the core values that drove you. But it’s key for you to keep talking to your employees. Get them involved in creating a culture you can all be proud of. Click here for some fun and low cost ideas. It takes a degree of trust in your people to let go of your treasured beliefs that you worked so hard to build. But its essential to creating ownership by people. If they feel part of what they are building, that builds huge motivation, and in turn productivity. Productive people, who are aligned around clear goals means happy people. Read more about creating a happy and productive workforce here.
You will get it wrong sometimes. A healthy company culture requires you to be incredibly open about your own mistakes. These are part of learning and growth for you as a leader, and for your business. Spend time reflecting with your team instead of attempting to brush your failures under the carpet. This process will inform and strengthen a culture of learning, growth and personal development. And it will underpin the meta-conversation you can have with your team about what your culture is and what it is for.
6. Setting goals
Clearly aligning employees effort with company goals and their rewards leads to a great productive culture. Ensure that all your people understand what their key deliverables are, by setting up a simple OKR process.
Now you know what does work. Not straightforward! These things are hard work. Find out more about creating a place where your people will love to work here.
We promised to tell you what doesn’t work. That’s easy. Beanbags. Fruit baskets and free beer. On their own, these things do not a strong culture build. Got a great culture and happy people already? Go ahead then, pour us a beer, and tell us how you did it! We’d love to hear from you!
Find out more about great HR and leadership on Air’s blog.