Joe Johnson, Ph.D.
Entrepreneur. Investor. Startup Expert.

According to France Frei and Anne Morriss’ article “Culture Takes Over When the CEO Leaves the Room,”

“… culture guides discretionary behavior and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is of course most of the time.”

Whom you attract to work with you and for you may depend both on the ideals espoused by your company and the ways in which you nurture your employees. Additionally, the character of how employees work, interact, and propose ideas is a reflection of that culture. How can you create a sustainable company culture which reflects your values and promotes innovation?

Why Culture Matters

Culture is the foundation upon which your company rests. Yes, you have your business model and your products or services, but the ways in which that business model is followed and your products or services are innovated and delivered depend on your culture.

Your company culture should both reflect your values and help to encourage growth through those values. It is reflected in how your team treats its members and in how they interface with the public. It can also impact how the public views your company.

With a healthy company culture in place, employees are often happier. They have a set of guidelines within which they are comfortable working and which help to shape their actions. A good culture can promote creativity and productivity and drive innovation; it can encourage teamwork. In short, a good culture is a net positive and any startup hoping to survive needs to focus on crafting a compelling culture that attracts the right kind of partners, employees, and customers.

When You Should Focus on Culture

While company culture may not be on your mind while you’re filling in your business model canvas, it shouldn’t be too far behind. After all, your culture is a reflection of your company’s mission. It’s essential to have an understanding – as you start laying out your business plan – that company culture can help bring your vision to fruition.

Whether you’re starting a farm-to-table restaurant or a dry-cleaning delivery service, the behind-the-scenes culture will have a huge impact on your company’s success. You should focus on crafting that culture as soon as practicable. Attempting to implement it later on is much more difficult and can lead to employee disagreements and stress. While it may not be a significant concern when there are only two employees, it will be of ever-greater importance as the corporate headcount climbs and there are more employees who must act in decision-making or customer-facing roles.

How to Craft and Nurture the Culture You Desire

Ping-pong tables and open work areas don’t constitute a culture. While they can help to reflect a company’s values, they don’t define it. When considering your company culture, keep the following in mind:

Identify Your Core Values

Your core values provide information to your employees on how to deal with problems, how to treat coworkers and clients, and where to best spend their time. Your core values will help to support your business model and can aid your company in remaining competitive. They should be a reflection of your goals and the ways in which you desire to make a difference in the world.

Examples of company core values include:

  • Honesty & Integrity
  • Openness
  • Exceptional Service
  • Exceeding Expectations
  • Partnership
  • Fairness
  • Balance
  • Empowering
  • Accountability
  • Communication
  • Innovation
  • Dedication to Others
  • Community Service
  • Quality

Core values help to guide the roadmap of success toward realizing the company’s stated purpose. For example, if your farm-to-table restaurant wants to demonstrate that a sustainable diet can be both delicious and affordable, one of your core values might be openness. Perhaps that will lead you to host cooking classes which illustrate various ways of utilizing seasonal produce to create meals that everyone will love.

Implementation details will vary, but with your core values in place, you’ll have a framework that can facilitate the decision-making process.

Meshing Your Core Values and Your Growth Strategy

The ways in which your core values serve your company matter. If they didn’t, what would be the point?

In order for your core values to function effectively within the company, they should be able to foster growth. While you may have created a growth strategy as part of your business plan, it’s important to ensure that it remains in line with your values. When the two work in tandem and provide mutual support to each other, you’ve struck startup gold.

A core value of honesty, for example, may lead to a monthly message from the CEO that helps to detail the company’s plan to both employees and customers. This can help to generate buzz about changes and make customers feel as though they’re “in the loop.”

Communicating Your Values

Values don’t just arise out of thin air. In order for everyone to be on the same page, it’s important to share and communicate company values.

While an employee handbook can be a useful tool for introducing a company’s culture and core values, it isn’t sufficient in and of itself. Integrating those values into both the ways in which decisions are made and in how employees and customers are treated in practice is essential in order to cultivate a company culture that serves to inform action and innovation.

Beyond openly sharing the company’s mission, highlighting the ways in which the company’s values reflect that mission and in how employees can best exhibit those values can be an effective means of encouraging and cultivating a desired culture. Often, the most practical method of illustrating a value is for those in leadership roles to “teach by doing” and personally set an example.

Nurturing Culture

In order keep your culture front and center, it’s important to practice consistency. Changes to core values or actions that contradict stated values can wreak havoc on a culture and throw it into disarray. Employees must know and understand the values and have confidence in their immutability. While some change will always be present, it should never amount to such a large alteration that it throws your company’s culture entirely out of whack. Instead, consistently exhibit the desired culture, recognize and applaud those who excel, and highlight the good that results from the company culture, whether it’s great Yelp reviews or a customer note detailing a great job that someone has done.

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Your company culture matters and it can amount to the difference between mere adequacy and greatness. Don’t neglect it until it’s too late!

About the Author

Dr. Joe Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor, and startup expert. He is the founder and principal of GoodField Investments and the GoodField Foundation (www.GoodField.com).

Joe has a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurial Leadership and an MBA. He is the author of the upcoming book on The Science of Why Most Entrepreneurs Fail and Some Succeed.

Most importantly, he is the incredibly blessed husband of one amazing wife and father of six wonderful children. He resides in Bradenton, Florida. For more information on Dr. Johnson and his work, go to www.JoeJohnson.com.