It’s a daily task, and it’s everything
One of the most important aspects of leadership is identifying, creating, and maintaining a healthy company culture. I want to be clear that company culture is not ping pong tables and team outings. Those definitely have their place and I would advise having fun in the office and planning fun outings when you can make it work. But culture is more than entertainment. Company culture is the way your employees work, interact, communicate, and treat each other. Your company values, allowed actions and behaviors, and the way everybody treats one another are all part of your company culture. It’s okay to have healthy tension and everyone doesn’t always have to get along with each other perfectly, but you must have an environment of respect and honor.
How do you accomplish this kind of culture? It begins with a basic question, “What are your values and how are they represented?”
Culture begins with your values
You’ve heard the saying that leaders should lead by example. This is absolutely true, because the values you hold as a leader will set the tone for your culture. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating over and over. Culture comes from the top. It’s up to the leadership team to continuously remind everyone of your company values and what it means to be a part of your organization.
I would highly recommend defining a set of three to five values for your organization and hone in on those values. Be an example and a beacon of hope in those values as a leader, every week, as much as you possibly can, because everyone is going to be looking to you.
Culture extends to those around you
Even though the company culture starts with the C-suite, you don’t want your business just centered around you, or your team just centered around you. You want to be raising up leaders and actually making those around you better.
This requires intention. You know the concept, as President Harry S. Truman said, “The buck stops here.” The ultimate responsibility of extending your culture falls on you, as the leader.
What a strong company culture looks like
A strong culture allows people to tell the truth, share what’s going on, put puzzle pieces on the table, and provides the confidence that your teams are not going to be judged, targeted, or frustrated by “corporate speak” in your environment. Culture is built on a foundation of trust and values that you exemplify every day. Living out your values can involve checking in with your people randomly, an act of kindness, or a word of affirmation. Here are some examples I use in my organization, Una, to live my values:
Leaders need to make sure that abundantly, across the organization, there’s absolute clarity, as much as humanly possible. Obviously there are going to be nuances depending upon the size of the organization, but it’s hard to have accountability if there isn’t the utmost clarity. This is important for culture because it eliminates confusion, and confusion impedes growth.
Clarity involves setting goals quarterly and setting expectations so that there’s true accountability. I’m gracious in how I deliver this information, but there needs to be true accountability. People like organizational clarity; that’s how you grow and scale a business.
I believe emphatically that just like you need to remind your spouse or partner that you love them daily, that one of your main goals as a leader should be a consistent affirmation of how much you appreciate your folks and what they do, day in and day out; and make sure you’re appreciating the right behaviors that not only help them personally and professionally in their career, but help the organization as well.
I also believe verbal or written affirmation is a go-to for creating culture as far as a daily task, or a go-to movement as a leader.
Recognition and Reward
There’s a book I love, and it’s also a movie, called, “Finding Forrester.” There’s a line in it where the author says, “The key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.” Now, I would argue that it depends on if that person appreciates gifts. I believe there are five love languages, and that’s another great book as well, but I digress. Recognition and reward can go a long way as part of your company culture. Your goal is not to manipulate your team members, but there is something meaningful about unexpected gifts to show gratitude and appreciation.
As you get to know your team members, you’ll find out what they would appreciate. Everybody’s wired differently. For example, I’ve got a partner that loves the Chicago Cubs. If I came to Chicago and we went to a Chicago White Sox game because I was a Chicago White Sox fan, that wouldn’t be very thrilling for my partner. He’d want to go to a Cubs game. The point is, if you’re going to give gifts, try to do a little bit of understanding and ask yourself, would that resonate with them? Would they be excited about receiving this?
And I think this not only applies to gifting, but it could be a metaphor for unexpected recognition at unexpected times. Make sure when you’re giving the recognition that you link it to a behavior, a value, or something that person did or achieved. Ideally, you are affirming results and creating an environment of teams that not only care about one another, but are value-driven, and also maniacal about results.
People don’t want to be around an organization that’s not growing, that’s stale, that doesn’t have opportunities, that’s not open-minded, that’s not full of life. And remember this too – healthy things grow. Healthy organizations should always be growing, every year, every quarter. You should be adding folks, or at least growing your folks professionally and personally.
Vulnerability begets vulnerability and yes, it starts with the C-suite, but you can empower your folks in such a way by being okay with being wrong; even being wrong in a massive way. And this can mean putting your ego and your heart out on the table for the chopping block. This also relates to psychological safety, which you can read about in my blog, Psychological Safety: What it Means and Why it Matters.
Love doesn’t mean that you have to tell your team members that you love them, although you may, depending on what kind of leader you are and how charismatic you are. But I believe there will be a kind of platonic love that you will develop for your team members, especially for the ones that stick around. There should be a genuine appreciation and love for folks because good people are hard to find and even harder to keep.
Culture is a daily task
The daily commitment needed to build and grow company culture reminds me of marriage, because marriage is a daily commitment. I didn’t just tell my wife that I love her when we exchanged our vows. Marriage is every day, reminding my wife that I love her. I relate that to building a team culture. It’s like showering. It’s like putting on deodorant. It’s like brushing your teeth. And if it becomes that ingrained, second nature to you, you don’t dismiss it, but you hold it in high esteem and put it on a pedestal. And I know the leaders who have a lot of influence and a lot of responsibility, that do this first and get this right, along with the clarity and the strategy, they attract the right folks. It’s like the old saying, “birds of a feather flock together” and that’s when you start to build some momentum. That’s when you start to create a moat around your business or your team because you’re starting to differentiate yourself.
The culture ripple effect
The reverberating effect is that, as the leader, if you take care of your people, they will take care of your clients. And if you’re going to run a value-driven company that cares about its people, it’s not only going to reverberate to your clients, but also to the new audiences that you want to reach. It comes out in your marketing, it comes out in your sales interactions with your clients, and it comes out in any kind of customer service or client service. It comes out internally and externally to everybody.
You’ve got to think about this ripple effect. Be a culture that attracts people that you want to be around. Again, the goal is value-driven results. If friendships and even lifelong friendships come out of it, great. But that’s not the goal of the organization. The goal of the organization is to serve your key clients, make their lives better, improve them as an organization, and to make sure you’re fulfilling your mission for your clients. But you’ve got to start by fulfilling the mission with your team members first, and whether it’s two of you, two hundred, or two thousand, I repeat, company culture is everything for the health and wellness in the short and long term of your organization.
Culture is a living thing
Lastly, I can’t emphasize enough that the company culture is an ever-moving target. It’s like a living organism and it’s either growing or decaying. Growing and adding to your culture is going to be a lot about how everybody treats one another and what’s allowed at the organization. And it doesn’t mean everybody always gets along. We encourage healthy conflict to reach the best ideas, but there’s a foundation of trust. There’s an understanding that we’re in the foxhole together, and leaders can build that foundation through the tactics above, checking in with your people randomly, an act of kindness, a word of affirmation tied to specific results or something they’ve done that’s helped themselves, helped those around them, or helped your clients. Once you get that value-driven culture ingrained, you’ll have a company that is maniacal about results.