What is culture? Breathe CEO, Jonathan Richards, defines culture as the shared values, beliefs, or perceptions held by employees within an organisation.
A strong, positive company culture creates a great place to work with loyal and productive staff supporting your business growth.
Or - in worst-case scenarios - you could find yourself the subject of damaging news headlines.
Take Google, for example. The tech-giant was left red-faced a few years ago after an employee released a memo arguing women in tech were scarce because of biological differences.
As well as firing the employee, Google was quick to underline its commitment to diversity and inclusion. But the damage was done.
Uber also made headlines when a female engineer wrote about the rampant culture of sexual harassment and sexism.
Since then, CEO Travis Kalanick has been ousted and the company is facing a slew of legal cases.
Why is it important to build a strong company culture?
It’s clear that a toxic company culture can damage a company’s public image. It can also harm productivity and staff morale, this in turn limits long-term growth.
So, whether you employ a team of 50, or just a handful, building a strong company culture matters.
Without your staff, your business stops running. Put people first and your business is more likely to succeed.
How to build a great company culture
There are plenty ways to build a great company culture as your business grows.
Establish your culture by defining your values
Your values are the reasons why you do what you do. It's what your business is built upon.
They steer the way your people behave, treat one another and go about their day-to-day work.
When a company is in its infancy, the culture that develops will be that of the founders. It’s often one that values a ‘can-do’ attitude. Well funded, high-growth startups may be able to spend time on culture building, but generally, this tends to happen naturally and doesn’t take too much effort. Keep in mind that this is about the age of a company, not its size – as a company evolves, so does the roles of its established leaders.
Your culture is a consequence of your values. So before you do anything else, you must establish your company values.
- What is the business' purpose?
- What do I want the business to be known for?
- Which characteristics do we value in our employees?
Communicate your values
Now you’ve nailed down your values, you must communicate them to your people. Only when this is done can they translate into company culture.
One way of doing this is to get your people together for an afternoon and communicate your values in an engaging and inspiring way. Invite them to participate - this way they’ll be more likely to engage with your vision and contribute towards building your new culture.
Going forward, ensure projects and initiatives are underpinned by these culture-relevant values. And be certain to communicate them at every employee onboarding.
Hire for cultural add
Hiring the right people is an important way of building a strong company culture.
Which makes hiring for culture fit seem like a great idea. You ask candidates what they value in a company and gauge if they align with your culture or not.
But this isn’t as good an idea as it sounds.
Hiring on the basis of cultural fit can quickly create a “me-too” environment where everyone thinks the same. It also limits employee diversity – and that’s proven to be bad news for company culture and business results.
Instead, hire for culture add. Ask what candidates can bring to your SME that will move your culture in the right direction.
How does your culture define success?
The way a business defines, measures and rewards success says a lot about its culture.
Agree how you will measure company and individual performance. Think also about the way your definition of success reinforces your culture.
Will you reward employees for hitting targets, or award them bonuses for passing certain levels of turnover? What about customer satisfaction or cost-reduction? Each type of measurement sends a message of its own and affects the way your culture develops.
Transparency helps improve trust and satisfaction for your employees. It’s also an important component of a strong culture.
This also applies to communicating how employees' work will help the organisation towards its mission and objectives (which can often get lost in day-to-day work.)
Running a business is not always plain sailing, so don’t try and hide the low points. Instead, celebrate the highs and analyse the lows, consulting with staff about where things have gone wrong and what can be done to improve them in the future.
Be transparent about your successes too; be sure to share any upturns in revenue, exciting achievements and business-growth.
Culture leads from the top
Many leaders don’t realise (or accept) that culture is their main responsibility so they leave it to develop without input. Leaders need to acknowledge that - like it or not - they set the cultural agenda and are responsible for curating how it builds in a company.
CEO of Breathe, Jonathan Richards, says that culture can be defined as ‘how things get done around here when the leaders aren’t present’. This makes the challenge of building a strong culture greater since it needs to exist independently of leaders.
It's also good if leaders can connect with their people emotionally. Gone are the days when managers keep their distance and focus on the metrics. People need to know that their leaders care about them and that they take rational decisions based on sound ethical principles.
Do what you say you're going to do
Building a strong company culture is about practicing what you preach. Company values are only worth something when you put them into practice.
If you say you're a 'people-first' company, demonstrate this by investing in your people. Failing to deliver on your promises creates a distrustful and disloyal culture.
Live up to your promises and you'll be rewarded with a strong culture and a happy, engaged and motivated team.