Creating a company culture: It’s all about your core values

So you’ve hired some team members. This is a big step in building your business. Now you have help! But you also have worries. Are they doing what you want them to do? How do you know they are making good decisions? What if they are slacking off or not representing your company the way you would want them to?

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As your business grows you realize your limits. You can’t be everywhere, you can’t double check everything. You need something bigger than you to do the job of watching over people’s actions and attitudes. That’s what your company culture is for.

Your company culture is a set of agreements, often embodied in a vision or mission, and a set of values that you teach and reinforce into every team member (hopefully) from the day they interview until the day they depart. The culture helps individuals to decide what they should, and (more importantly) should not do, even when you aren’t around to watch over them. It’s an agreement of standards of behavior based on some fundamental beliefs (values) and a shared vision.

Let me give you some examples.

When you fly Southwest Airlines you expect a different experience, right? Southwest isn’t like all the other airlines. Their employees smile more, have more fun, and generally seem less bureaucratic than those of other airlines. That experience you have is a reflection of the “Southwest Way” (which is what they call their culture). Their values of “Warrior Spirit, Servant’s Heart, and Fun-LUV-ing Attitude” are readily apparent when you interact with their people.

southwest airlines

There are lots of different types of cultures; and they do not all look like Southwest. I once had a client who scheduled everyone to work a five and a half day week. Everyone worked on Saturday; it was considered “just part of the job”! If someone needed a new pen, they were told to hand in the old one that was out of ink. Their offices were threadbare and the floors weren’t level. Their commercials had the business owner sitting in his basement talking about the “deal of the week”. All of these choices reflected a “stingy” company culture grew out of the practice of selling their products for very low prices (and margins). That one choice had a ripple effect and a huge impact on all of their business practices.

What are your values?

Most businesses resemble their owners. Your strengths and your weaknesses get reflected in the organization you build.

Similarly, the values of a business don’t magically spring up from the ground. The business owner’s values are most likely going to be reflected in the values of the business. Values aren’t something that you “decide”; they are core beliefs that are already there. You couldn’t give them up if you tried! In fact, one way we test to see if a belief is really a core value is by asking:

if the market punished you for this, would you change?”

If not, you’ve probably bumped into a core value. Your values are most helpful in telling you what you won’t do. Values are the reason you say no to things.

Building a culture

If you want a culture that is going to help to maintain your standards and beliefs even when you aren’t there, you need to do more than write them down and hang them in a fancy picture frame on the wall. You need to live them, and you need to tell stories that show how you (and your employees) are living out their values. If you really believe that “Customers come first” then you should be able to give examples of when you and your team put personal needs aside in order to make sure that the customers were attended to. If you really believe in integrity then there will be stories of times you told customers things they didn’t want to hear, but were true. Times when it cost you business.

Remember how we said that your culture is an “agreement”? Well, when you are asking your employees to behave in a certain way–a way that will enable them to be a significant part of a bigger vision–they need to see that you are bound by the same standards you hold them to. An important part of the agreement is the application of it: if there is any favoritism, if there are people–even high performers–who don’t abide by the agreement, then the agreement starts to fall apart. If you want them to submit to your business values, you’ve got to submit to them too.

You might not think you have a culture, but you definitely do. The thing is, do you want to be intentional about building this culture? Or do you want to be passive about it? Do you want your agreement to be something everyone can articulate? Or some sort of hidden agenda that no one really knows, but somehow everyone abides by?

This month at EnMast we will be talking about how to discover your values and craft a vision for your business. We’re going to help you to communicate it to your team with words and actions. And we’re going to share some stories of companies who did a great job at it so you can see the impact and power of company culture with your own eyes. (AND help you build your culture too.)

How have you discovered and communicated your company culture? What has it done for your team?

core values list

Photo credit: Metro Transportation Library and Archive

Devan Perine

Devan Perine works with small business owners on their marketing and multimedia efforts. She's passionate about helping businesses build their presence online, and giving Gen Y a voice in the workplace. When she's not working, she loves to make a mess in the kitchen, and play with her band around Chicago. She loves to chat! Give her a shout on Google+, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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