The Basics of Shaping Your Company's Culture
Over the past five years or so, the goal of having a fantastic corporate culture has been at the forefront of many CEO’s minds. For years it went ignored or, at best, misunderstood. Gone are the days where culture was considered “soft stuff.” At this point, thousands of articles, conferences, and consultants have been shared, each of which promotes the gospel on why a strong culture is imperative to the overall health of a business. Even investor extraordinaire Warren Buffet is a staunch believer.
And yet if it’s so important, why do so many companies struggle to build a strong one as a foundational element to their success? Because it’s difficult.
Every culture is unique and is the culmination of a variety of factors. There is no silver bullet, nor is there a blueprint that will satisfy the needs of all companies. That said, there are a handful of elements that are shared by every healthy culture I’ve come across. Identifying and understanding where your organization measures against these is a decent place to start.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE, AND WHO YOU ASPIRE TO BE.
Many companies start with a compelling mission or vision statement. If done well, it should be fueled with purpose. Consider Patagonia’s: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” If you read their core values, they map directly back to that statement. In other words, the statement is clear about the direction they are headed and what they hope to achieve in their business. The five core values they selected directly map back to that vision. There is no guessing on the part of the employee or the customer; it’s abundantly clear what is valued, and the behaviors they expect to achieve it.
PRO TIP: Wandering aimlessly is fun if you are exploring a new city, but it’s a dangerous approach to take when you are leading a business. Whether it’s “landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade,” or Bill Gates’ original mission for Microsoft of "A computer on every desk in every home", ensuring you create one that serves as a clear north star to your employees and customers alike is imperative. Don’t know where to start? The internet is loaded with sources, but here are a few basics. How to Write a Mission Statement and Answer 4 Questions to Get a Great Mission Statement.
UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU VALUE MOST.
While a vision statement aids in articulating why you exist as a business, identifying a set of core values is the foundation of behaviors and mindsets necessary to achieve it. Start with what matters most to your company; whether it’s how you treat each other, the customer experience, collaboration, etc. Many companies attempt this by crafting a handful of clever words, but then fail to execute on them. (how do you measure “have fun?!”) What matters most in selecting your core values is that they are completely authentic to your company.
PRO TIP: Whether you are a startup and taking your first pass at identifying values, or you are an established company looking to do a cultural revamp, including the input of “cultural icons.” These are people representing every level, every team, every office, who are known to embody what your leadership truly values. When we started this exercise at Rapid7 eight years ago, we did just this. A group of about thirty diverse perspectives came together over the course of two months and did the hard work of determining who we were...and who we aspired to be. Obviously, our executive team had signed off before we rolled out the final product, but by following this approach we not only ended up with values that represented us well; we also have 30% of the company bought in and serving as ambassadors because they had played a role in the process.
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH.
You’ve now done the hard work of understanding what your company’s raison d’etre, and have identified the core values to support it. Now comes the hard work. Every single element of your employee lifecycle - from the day you first reach out to a potential candidate, to how you onboard them, to their development, to their promotions straight through to the day you part ways - should be infused with your core values. It’s one thing to have them hanging on a wall as a subliminal reminder; it’s quite another to have your people embody them to the point where they are guiding behaviors and decision making. For example, if your company espouses “teamwork” as a value, but creates an environment where only the loudest voice in the room makes all the decisions without encouraging others who are quieter to share their perspective, you aren’t truly living that value. It’s not enough to state what’s important; it must be reinforced in reviews, promotions, awards, and the daily operations of your business.
PRO TIP: This isn’t just a human resources/people strategy exercise. Leaders of the company should take an active role, and model the behaviors you wish your employees to live on a daily basis. It’s hard to inspire people to, for example, innovate, if they are penalized for pushing boundaries and taking risks when they sometimes fail. In other words, no matter what values you select, they must be woven into your everyday activities to actually take root and work.
CELEBRATE THOSE WHO EMBODY THE CULTURE.
Outlining and articulating your mission and values is one thing, but embodying them and living them on a daily basis is where the real magic happens. It’s virtually impossible to build a strong, healthy culture without people who don’t just buy in and embody it but contribute to it as well. Being able to identify people as positive cultural reference points are imperative; they are the people you want to celebrate for their part in strengthening the culture. Whether through awards, promotions, or just plain daily kudos, be mindful of the people and behaviors you are shining the spotlight on. No matter what role they play in the company, others will look to them for cues on what success looks like.
PRO TIP: This is where hard decisions come into play. If you have a sales leader who is crushing their number but misaligned with your values, what do you do? Do you look the other way because of the revenue they are bringing in? The real “secret” to building a healthy culture is nurturing it. Every time you celebrate someone who is NOT aligned with the values of the company, you chip away at its effectiveness. Take the time to hire people who are aligned from the start, and coach them if they are struggling with the values once they arrive. If misalignment continues to exist, make the tough calls. Your other team members will thank you for it.
STORIES & ARTIFACTS
There is exceptional power in the storytelling of your culture. It offers the opportunity to share the history, the context, and importance of why your company believes and operates the way it does. It’s irrelevant if this is done formally or informally; everyone who works there should know and understand that narrative. Those elements, in our case, about how a moose came to represent teamwork or how “meaningful customer partnerships” took a new meaning with an infamous Kentucky Derby mishap, it’s all part of our lore. Supporting these stories with artifacts just serve to reinforce the messages more.
PRO TIP: Often companies try to be clever and create fun slogans or moments to highlight how fun or progressive the company is. Again, the reminder here is to be mindful about your stories and artifacts supporting the culture you want to build, not just how cool you think you are. As with all of this work, authenticity is paramount.
The dynamics of the workplace have shifted radically over the last several decades. Long gone are the days of beige walls and cube farms. If you think of your environment as the physical manifestation of your culture, it begins to shape how you design. For example, if you value collaboration but have all your people sitting in separate offices, aren’t you sending mixed messages? When selecting cities and countries to open new spaces, are you doing the diligence ahead of time to select local cultures which align with the values? How and where we work is the in-your-face representation of our culture. Where often values can be felt in subtle ways throughout the work day, there are no hiding misalignments when you can visually see them on daily basis.
PRO TIP: Whether you are a tiny startup or a rapidly growing firm, you can embed the workplace experience into your cultural planning. It doesn’t have to break the bank; even the simplest elements which support your values and the way in which you want people to work (collaboration spaces, quiet spaces, places to eat, etc.) all make a significant difference.
There is a multitude of factors which influence and shape a company’s culture, but the above help set a basic blueprint to get started or recalibrated. No matter what you do, however, remember authenticity, consistency, and engagement sit at the center of success.