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Culture: It’s what you do.

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Culture is not what you say, but rather what you do. Specifically, it’s what founders and leaders do: what they pay attention to, what they reward and condone that defines company culture. This isn’t to say that words and missions statements don’t matter, because they do. They are needed to communicate and collaborate, instruct and unite. Thus words are vehicles for communicating culture, not creating it. Culture can and should be consciously created by the leadership team, but how?


The following 4 steps will help you create your company’s culture


Step 1: Decide what your core principles are as an organization 

Founders should start building their company’s culture before any employees are hired by writing down their core values. The fingerprints of the founders should be clearly visible on everything in the company and the culture should be a reflection of who the founders are as individuals. Last spring when a few classmates and I founded an on-demand hair styling company, Tressed, for a class project, we chose to naively blow through the “small cultural stuff” and instead dive directly into our hair styling service. This led to conflict, frustration, and constant confusion over the entire duration of the course, causing some members to ball out of the entrepreneurial venture after the course was over. The team members who remained and I had to remodel the foundation our company and create an exhaustive inventory of our values. After carefully mulling through each one we were left with the following 3 core principles: We are committed to maintaining our relationships with each other; we are committed to creating better opportunities for hair stylists; and we are committed to providing quality, affordability, and convenient services for our customers. Rather than laminating and disseminating these values, we acted upon them almost immediately.


Step 2: Use your principles to guide your discussions and decisions

After establishing our principles, we leveraged them. For the first time, we were able to make decisions quickly and assuredly. When discussing ideas we would say things like “ Since we value our relationships with each other, we should do X”, or “If we want to offer convenient, reliable, and affordable services, we should avoid doing Y ”, and “If we are committed to bettering the lives our stylists, should we even consider Z?” For the first time, we had something to compare our actions to, which allowed us to gauge the right or wrongfulness of our decisions, which in turn led to better results for our company, our stylists, and our customers.


Step 3 Integrate your principles into your company’s performance and operating systems

According to Peter Drucker, the man who invented management, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. The same principles that drive decisions should also drive performance and business operations. Before deciding what our principles were, everyone on the Tressed team was working hard, but not smart. We each prioritized something different, based on our respective perceptions of value-add, rather than a unified understanding of value-add. This in turn led to inefficiencies in operations and underperformance of our team as a whole. Once we determined what our values were the sailing was much smoother though and we were able align our operations with our values and become much more efficient and internally consistent as a team and company.


Step 4: Reinforce and reaffirm

As a leader, it your responsibility to constantly reinforce the values of your company.  One way to do this is by rewarding behaviors that are consistent with your guiding principles and discourage behaviors that are inconsistent with such principles. Another was to affirm values and thereby culture is through hiring and firing. Be sure that your hiring process checks for personality traits that are aligned with your company ‘s culture and hires those that are most aligned with it. Similarly, find ways to become acutely aware of any “problem employees” within your organization as such persons can become toxic to your organization and threaten the culture you have worked so tirelessly to create.  Lastly and most importantly, reinforce culture by aligning your actions with your words. Be sure that all members of management do as they say and say as they do. Nothing is more demoralizing than a manger who is unaligned in this respect.  People will be resistant to your culture and it will take time to shape, but eventually it will take form.


Last Words

Culture is tough to get right, but it’s your best weapon against your biggest enemy. If leaders aren’t conscious about the culture that they want to build, culture will happen so as a business leader you must ask yourself one question: culture by default or culture by design? The answer to this question will likely shape your company’s destiny.

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