6 Keys to Building a Better Company Culture

Do you ever get frustrated that some of the people in your business are choosing to do something in a way that you wouldn’t?

Or do you ever watch someone doing something and think, “Why would that ever choose to  _____ that way?”

Or, as you’ve added employees, do you ever feel like your business has lost some of that “special sauce” that made it feel special back when you were smaller?

If you answered “Yes,” to any of those questions, you’ve run into a culture problem.

Culture is the 24/7 driver of a business and as you begin to scale up your business, it’s one of those issues that you have to be incredibly intentional about or you’ll lose what made you unique and you’ll end up with a hodge podge of culture (i.e. what every individual thinks it should be—which, technically, is a culture, just a bad one).

So, how can you turn that around and build the kind of culture that will drive your scaling efforts—whether or not you’re actually present? To discover how to do that, you’ll want to follow these six keys.

I. Design It

Your business, just like very business has a culture. The problem is that most cultures are completely unintentionally “built.” Whatever the owners/founders’ personality and personal idiosyncrasies are, tends to be the culture.

So, if Joe is an extroverted entrepreneurial CEO who doesn’t like planning and loves to do everything by “the seat of his pants,” that tends to be the culture of the company. If Angela is the owner of an ad agency and is very thoughtful and deliberative, loves collaboration and values diversity, that tends to be the culture of the entire company … at least for the first few hires.

The problem comes when enough employees are hired that not everyone reports to the owner/CEO. That movement from direct contact with the owner/CEO on a regular basis to not, is usually when culture problems really begin to raise their ugly head—and it gets worse when multiple layers of management are added or when employees are virtual (or virtually virtual, i.e. they pop in every once in a while to the main office). At this point, multiple cultures/values/preferences all raise their ugly heads and create conflicts.

The better option is to be intentional about designing the kind of culture you want (which may or may not fully fit who you the owner/CEO, are).

So, strategically, what kind of culture would create the best environment for your employees to perform at their best and fulfill your strategic plan?

Don’t assume a great culture will simply arise from your company, you have be intentional about designing it. However, once you design it, you need to make sure you …

II. Model It

As you know, people do what people see. For decades, leaders have asked me, “So, Bruce, how do you get people to do ____?” My answer has always been the same, “You have to go first. You have to be the model.” Why? Because people do what people see.

When you were a child, I’m guessing you hated it when any parent/teacher/adult said to you, “Do as I say, not as I do.” That’s just poor leadership and faulty thinking—and you knew that when you were a little kid.

So, if you want something to be true of your culture, it always has to start with you and what you’re modeling for your people. For example, if you want to create a culture of people who execute fast, then you have to start modeling fast execution (not just telling your people to execute fast).

One way to model that would be to schedule an execution time after key meetings (for example, a weekly staff meeting). If right after a meeting is completed, you start executing on your responsibilities and don’t wait until just before the next meeting (or worse, not executing at all), you’ll set a standard for fast execution that everyone will notice.

In fact, I was at a strategy meeting yesterday with one of my clients. During the meeting, the husband (it’s a husband and wife team) mentioned he would follow up on a task. A few minutes after our almost three hour meeting ended, while I was at a stop light, I checked my email to see if there was anything urgent I missed that morning and guess what, this owner had already followed up on that task. Bravo! Perfect!

So, how are you doing at modeling the actual culture you want to create in your business?

Nothing will influence the culture of your company more than the example you set (which, of course means that if you don’t like your current company culture, you know exactly where to start looking for the root of the problem).

III. Talk About It

Culture is always built by two things more than anything else, the model we set and the stories we tell. It doesn’t matter what culture we’re talking about—historical culture (the Greeks and Romans), national culture (the founding of the United States), military culture (previous military encounters), family culture or business culture—all are built on example and story (with the same stories being repeated over and over again).

In other words, once you’ve defined the culture you want, you want to find stories that illustrate the culture you want—and then you need to keep telling those stories over and over again. “Remember when …”

Culture isn’t created by putting some words up on a wall or giving a speech once a year on it. Culture is created day by day as you reinforce and talk about what matters most.

You can even personify your culture by naming it and then talking about it. For example, when my kids were growing up, they can tell you I repeatedly would say things like, “You’re a Johnson and Johnson’s don’t _____!” Or “You’re a Johnson, and Johnson’s do ________!”

You can do the same thing with your company. For example, I have a new membership community I’m launching in a few weeks. The people in that community will be called BizScalers. So, I’ll repeatedly be saying to them things like, “BizScalers do ______. They don’t do _____.” Why? Because I want to build a certain kind of culture, just like you want to.

Culture isn’t built in a day or through one talk, it’s built day by day as you talk about it over and over again until your people are mocking you, and then you do it some more.

So, how are you doing at constantly talking about the culture you want for your company?

IV. Embed It

Words are great, but as a BizScaler :-), you know that systems are the key to scaling your business. It’s nice that you’re modeling and talking about your culture but how do you make sure that what you’re designed, modeled and talked about actually becomes a reality in your business? You do that by embedding it in your company.

For example,

  • You can embed it in your employee manual
  • You can post your core values on your walls
  • You can print your core values on your meeting agendas and talk about one of them per meeting
  • You can set up a value of the month program
  • You can make sure you meet with each new hire on day one and share your culture with them as part of their onboarding process
  • You can add culture issues to employee plans and employee evaluations
  • You can make culture part of your bonus program, etc.
In other words, you don’t just assume someone will magically “catch” your culture, you intentionally embed it in your systems and processes so you make it impossible for someone to not know what it is.
So, how are you doing at embedding your culture throughout your organization?

V. Hire To It

This just makes sense. It is infinitely easier for someone who already owns your cultural value to be assimilated into your culture than it is to take someone who’s 30 degrees or 50 degrees or 180 degrees off target.

Back in my old pastoral days, I used to tell engaged couples that if they thought that getting married would somehow magically transform their fiancé into someone different than they are now, they will be sorely disappointed. Note: I’m not anti-change because my entire career has been about helping people change. But, in general, who people are, is who they tend to remain.

Yes, it is possible to help someone who isn’t a collaborator to become more collaborative—it’s just infinitely easier to hire someone who already loves collaborating (if collaboration is part of your culture).

Yes, it is possible to take someone who isn’t a self-starter and help them become a self-starter—it’s just infinitely easier to hire someone who already is a self-starter.

Yes, it is possible to take someone who isn’t committed to excellence and train them to work at an excellence level—it’s just infinitely easier to hire someone who already is committed to excellence and produces work at that level.

In other words, once you define your culture (whatever that culture is), make sure you use that grid as a filter for hiring. Yes, you can change some people. But the vast majority of people will continue to be who they already are (and they’ll already own your culture on day one).

So, how are you doing at making sure all of your new hires fit your company culture before you actually hire them?

VI. Enforce It

I can’t overstate how important this principle is. If you’re not willing to hold people accountable to a value or principle, then it’s not really your culture. Enforcement is where the rubber meets the road.

In my book, Breaking Through Plateaus, I shared the story about a company I did a talk for on leadership back when I first left pastoral ministry. As part of the preparation for that talk, the managing partner of that firm asked me to interview each of the nine board members and the COO.

On three separate occasions, the board member I was interviewing reached out to a crystal pyramid on the conference room table (one that had the core values of that firm etched onto it) and said to me, “This is bunk. We don’t actually believe this.” The fact this happened in three separate meetings is still amazing to me.

When I asked them why, they all said, “Because we have key partners in our firm who consistently break these values and we do nothing about them.” In other words, since we don’t enforce these values, they’re not really our values in the first place.

I deal with this issue all the time with business owners and entrepreneurs. Stating a value or cultural practice is good but if you’re not willing to enforce it (i.e. call people on it when they don’t live up to it), then it’s not really a cultural value … period.

Great business leaders know you have to call people on breaking cultural values or the value means nothing. This means that you have to call them on LITTLE BREAKS of the culture because if you don’t call people on the little stuff, it will escalate into big stuff.

So, how are you doing at enforcing your culture? Are you calling your people on the “little breaks” or not?

If you’re not consistently enforcing your values and cultural practices, then you’re in trouble. If you are or have been a parent then you know what I’m talking about. Consistency is the key to great leadership (and parenting).

So, there you have it, If you want to build a better, more intentional, company culture, make sure you engage in all six of these culture practices.

  1. Design it
  2. Model it
  3. Talk about it
  4. Embed it
  5. Hire to it
  6. Enforce it

If you engage all six of these keys you’ll build the kind of company culture that will scale well, regardless of whether you’re present or not. And that will make your life infinitely easier!

To your accelerated success!


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