Why Your Company Culture Matters, and How to Improve It

It’s 6 a.m. and your alarm clock just went off. As you reach over to turn it off, what are you thinking?

Carpe diem!? Today’s the day!?

Or…

Did you have a rough night of sleep?  Is your head aching? Should you have said no to that third glass of wine?

Are you scrambling to remember what you have to do today, or are you in a meditative state because you made a to-do list last night, got plenty of rest, and are awake in time to start your morning routine before your day gets going at the office?

Whatever the feeling, it’s going to influence not only your morning, but your entire day. How you feel will impact every interaction and decision you make in a day.

“But I can’t measure how I feel,” you’re thinking, “and you’re telling me it matters and will affect the outcome of everything I do today?”

Yep! And the same can be said for your company culture.

While everyone is going to walk in the door with their own energy each day, organizationally there are a number of things you can do to improve your company’s culture.

Does your company have a defined culture? And just so everyone’s on the same page, what is company culture?

Wells Fargo has as good a definition as I’ve found: Company culture is knowing what you need to do when you come to work in the morning without having to read a manual or being told what to do.

Make sense?

You may say that’s great and all, but you’re thinking to yourself this company culture stuff sounds a little hokey and you’ve got more important things to worry about, like P&Ls, innovation, acquiring new clients, and keeping up with the competition.

What if I told you company culture can help with all those things?

Why Company Culture Is Important

Your company culture may be one of your biggest assets or biggest liability. In a survey conducted by the management consulting firm Bain & Company, worldwide business leaders identified corporate culture as just as important as corporate strategy for your business’ success.  

Culture is not just the mood of your co-workers in the break room or how friendly the receptionist is. While those are both pieces of it, culture encompasses much more.

Culture is an effective mechanism for establishing and controlling employee behavior. And it’s likely going to be far better received and embraced than rules, policies, and regulations.  If done right, culture goes even further to provide a clear guide for how to behave in any given situation without having to refer to a manual.

Researchers have found a strong relationship between organizational culture and company performance, with respect to success indicators such as revenues, sales volume, market share, and stock prices.

And as things go awry when dealing with a customer, culture is a better problem solver than a flow chart of troubleshooting, since many situations arise for the first time and a flow chart wouldn’t help.

Are there specific attributes you want or don’t want in employees? You should know and define what your culture is before asking if people fit in with it.

Step one is to clearly define what company culture means for your organization.

Keys to Company Culture

  • Core values
  • Clear vision
  • Hire the right people
  • Help employees reach their goals
  • Corporate wellness
  • Reinforce vision and culture

Core Values

As your company grows, it becomes more important to define its core values.  I know it sounds hokey and you feel you can run your small business without core values. As you grow and scale your business, your core values will go a long way to defining your company’s culture and your ability to scale not just your company, but your culture.

Your core values are the guiding principles that help shape your culture and brand, and are an integral part of your overall business strategies.

How to Improve

First things first: Does your company have core values? The first step to is to define core values for your company. Not sure where to start?

Examples of Company Core Values

Toms Shoes

  • Give sustainably. Give responsibly.
  • Giving partnerships.
  • Identify communities that need shoes.
  • Give shoes that fit.
  • Help our shoes have a bigger impact.
  • Give children shoes as they grow.
  • Welcome feedback and help us improve.

Accenture

  • Stewardship
  • The best people
  • Client value creation
  • One global network
  • Respect for the individual
  • Integrity

Zappos

  • Deliver WOW through service.
  • Embrace and drive change.
  • Create fun and a little weirdness.
  • Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded.
  • Pursue growth and learning.
  • Build open and honest relationships with communication.
  • Build a positive team and family spirit.
  • Do more with less.
  • Be passionate and determined.
  • Be humble.

Can you see how core values can shape an entire organization? What does your company believe in to its core? Does everyone in your company know and live in alignment with the core values?

Clear Vision

Your company’s vision statement defines your core ideology and the idealized future that your company is creating.

There’s a famous fable about three brick layers: Ask each of the brick layers what they’re doing (they all have the exact same job and duties). The first one says he’s laying bricks. The second says he’s building a wall. The third brick layer says he’s building the most magnificent cathedral the world has ever seen.

This story shows the importance of a clear vision, seeing the bigger picture, and feeling a sense of purpose in the work being done.

Does your company have a clear vision of your culture? Companies with a clear sense of purpose outperform those that don’t.

How to Improve

If you haven’t already, sit down with your team and craft a vision statement for your organization. What do you believe to your core? What do the idealized future and impact your firm is making look like?

If you already have a vision statement, make sure each employee not only knows it, but feels part of the bigger picture. Many times there is a disconnect between upper management and workers. Remember the brick layer and the strong sense of purpose he felt in being part of the bigger vision.

If you want to read more about building your company’s vision, check out this article from the Harvard Business Review.

Hire the Right People

Teamwork is vital to the success of your organization, and high-functioning teams produce better results.

One of the best examples and case studies I’ve ever read about company culture is the story of Zappos, the online shoe seller. For the complete Zappos story, check out “Delivering Happiness” by CEO Tony Hsieh. Zappos has all new employees, regardless of their role, spend two weeks on the phones in the customer service department to get a frontline feel and understanding for the Zappos culture and dealing with customers.

After two weeks on the phones, employees are offered $2,000 to quit.

The genius lies in the fact that all organizations make hiring mistakes. Letting people go is not easy. Neither is leaving your job. But candidates and companies both make mistakes.

Candidates sometimes act a part in interviews and lean too much on trying to get the job and not enough on being authentic and assessing if the position and company are a good fit. Having employees who don’t want to be there isn’t just costly in lost production — you also run the risk of the negativity infecting other employees. Offering employees $2,000 to quit goes a long way to ensure you have the right people at your company who will not only accept the company culture, but live it as well.

The Zappos culture is often thought of as “wacky,” but there’s no denying the successful culture strategy and execution at Zappos have been successful. Do you have the right people in your organization? How many of your employees would leave if you offered them $2,000? What’s keeping them there?

Culture fit is also more than just “do you get along well with the team?” Culture fit can also be about moving rapidly, taking risks, speaking up, being creative, or not micromanaging.

How to Improve

Explain culture during interviews and throughout the hiring process. Incorporate culture into annual reviews.

One thing I have always relied on is hiring for attitude. I would rather hire someone with a positive attitude and a desire to learn than someone whom I wouldn’t enjoy going to work with every day. To read more on this, check out “The Energy Bus” by Jon Gordon.  He talks about getting the right people on the bus and how attitude impacts company performance.

Be careful not to lean too much on finding good culture fits, as some organizations have hid behind the wall of “culture fit” to discriminate. That is in no way what I’m suggesting.

A few bad apples can ruin your company’s culture. Hire slowly, fire quickly.

Help Employees Reach Their Goals

Helping employees grow both personally and professionally is a good idea, regardless of what you identify as your company culture. Let’s hope you have hired employees who have lives outside of work as well. Work-life balance helps increase happiness and prevents burnout at the office.

How to Improve

Sit down with employees and talk to them about their goals. Why are they in this job? What is important to them to accomplish outside of work?

Whether it’s a family vacation, running a marathon, saving up to buy a house, or learning a foreign language, tuning in to your employees’ non-work goals can help everyone be on the same page with aligning goals and incentives.

Corporate Wellness

The health of your employees should not be left up to chance. Our health is our wealth, and at the end of the day, if we aren’t healthy, it will impact our energy, attitude, and performance on the job.

When we exercise, our bodies release chemicals called endorphins that react with our brain and trigger positive feelings. If you’ve ever heard of a runner’s high, it’s exactly this feeling — that’s why exercising can help us feel happier and more positive about life.

Healthy employees are happy employees, and happy employees are more productive. Don’t believe me? Check out Shawn Achor’s TED talk about the effect of happiness on productivity at work.

How to Improve

A few ideas:

  • Look into a corporate wellness program to show employees that the company values their health and well being. This will not only keep your workforce healthy and happy, but it can be a good sign to potential hires, a positive differentiator from your competition and employee retention strategy.
  • Offer gym membership reimbursement to employees.
  • Organize company outings that revolve around health and wellness. Company walks, sports teams, and training teams go a long way to promote a healthy work environment and strengthen relationships among employees. We have a company cycling group at 100state that bikes every Wednesday morning. It’s a great way to build camaraderie, exercise, and have discussions with co-workers.

Reinforce Vision and Values

Do whatever you can as often as possible to remind your employees of your vision and values and strengthen your company culture.

The culture should be taught and reinforced to everyone in the organization. Have culture strengthening training, content, and events that reinforce company culture. Incorporate culture into annual reviews. Someone should feel your company culture at every touchpoint with your organization.

Here’s a perfect example: I was just at a Four Seasons Hotel for a business meeting. As we were seated and chatting, a janitor walked by and gave us a warm smile and politely greeted us. We looked at each other and commented, it’s the little things that make the Four Seasons’ experience first class, and they pay attention to every little detail.

It’s clear the janitor was trained on the company’s core values, vision, and culture, and the level of service everyone in the organization is responsible for. It’s no wonder they’re considered one of the top hotels in the world.

Joe Sweeney is a social entrepreneur, committed to helping individuals and organizations grow and solve problems. Most recently, he was the co-founder and CEO at 100state, a nonprofit, startup community of entrepreneurs, educators, and innovators in Madison, Wis. Joe was recently named one of 53 entrepreneurs on Madison Magazine’s “M List: The New Who’s Who” for his work with 100state.

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