How (and Why) to Build an Intentional Company Culture

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Earlier this week, I shared my 51 Rules of Leadership Excellence. I put them in random order because they are equally critical to success, but Rule 11 begs further discussion:

Consciously build a powerful company culture. Otherwise, it will build itself…and you will not like the results.   — Marla Tabaka

What does it really mean to build a strong culture? For some entrepreneurs, the very word conjures up images of employees dancing on desks, playing pool in the break room, and napping away in comfy, soundproof enclosures. While providing a fun environment may be one component of a thriving company culture, there's so much more to it.

If you want to stand out from your competition, keep your rock star talent from jumping onto another stage, and glean nothing but the best from employees at all levels, always remember Rule 11 from my 51 Rules of Leadership Excellence. Build a company culture based on your own values, but don't forget these eight musts.

1. If you want to be trusted, you must trust.

A culture of mutual trust is imperative. If you behave like a helicopter parent, overseeing, or worse, taking over every project, it will directly conflict with building trust. What if they make a mistake? I think any successful entrepreneur will tell you there is no mistake you cannot recover from. Give your employees clear guidelines and let them spread their wings.

Also, always do what you say you will unless there’s a good reason not to. If an employee is due for a raise, give it to them on time. If you say you will have weekly team meetings, be there. If you promise to add a team member to lighten the load, make it happen.

2. Determine your purpose.

Everyone needs a purpose in their lives; this is just as true in businesses. The purpose is the “why” behind what you do. If your company's purpose is only about making money, employees won't stand behind it for long. If the purpose is compelling and gives them a great reason to work at your company, it will attract passionate employees who want to fulfill your company's purpose.

If you create a purpose that benefits humankind, not just your company, you will attract and retain employees, which will produce the same effect on your customers.

3. Create a compelling vision.

If you don’t have a vision, you can’t get there. A compelling vision is short, clear, and achievable—albeit out of reach in the current moment.

For example, ex-Dunkin' Donuts CEO (and son of the company founder) Robert Rosenberg created this vision for Dunkin's future: “To become the dominant doughnut and coffee provider in each and every market” in which it competed.

Clear, concise, and probably achievable, but how? Metrics, KPI’s, and consistency.

The key is to sift through all the possible metrics and KPIs to determine the goals that best define success. Dunkin’s early objectives were:

  • To have earnings per share grow at 15-to-20 percent per year.
  • To have store-level economics achieve at least a 15-percent return on investment on average.
  • To have debt never total more than three times EBITDA.

The company measured plenty of other things, but these objectives mattered most. This meant other goals had to support those objectives; otherwise, they weren't important.

Do your best to make your vision short, memorable, and repeatable. Long or confusing paragraphs cannot guide employees' thoughts, decisions, or actions, mostly because they can't remember or repeat it.

4. Clarify the values within your company culture.

Values let your team and the outside world know what you are all about. To come up with your company's values, first, explore your own personal values and use those to create values to guide your company toward success. Avoid double-standards.

For instance, most entrepreneurs value freedom, both personal and financial. Yet, many don’t extend that value to their team. If you wish to be financially independent and have flexibility in your schedule, wouldn’t it make sense to extend the same opportunities to your team, within reason, of course. If financial freedom is essential to you, pay your team well, and you’re more likely to achieve the goal. They will be committed, hard-working, and focused. If your employees feel safe financially, it gives them one less thing to worry about so they can concentrate on their job.

You can have any number of values; it's up to you, but remember that your values will direct how you do things in the future, so choose wisely.

5. Create unique/WOW factors.

Unique/WOW factors for your company may be the single most important thing in business today. Why should anyone want to work with or buy from your company? What is unique or WOW about it? Does what you sell or deliver stand out from the rest?

Having a unique/WOW factor should not only be for what you sell, but how you deliver it. This is especially true for a commodity or a service, as in those cases, what you sell may not be that unique in the first place. Be different! If everyone is building fences, dig a tunnel!

6. No jerks allowed.

I can't say this often enough: Hiring for skill alone will doom you to misery. Hire people who fit in with the intentional design of your culture. Hire people who have a proven work ethic and are team players. Hire for creativity and personality. Sure, experience and skill are important, but not nearly enough to take you to the top of your industry.

Create an interview process with questions that will compel your candidate to discuss their values, vision, skills, and professional and life experience. Don't rush through the search and hire process to get a warm body onboard; know your new hires.

7. Your company culture should encourage growth and ownership.

A strong company culture isn't just about teamwork and camaraderie; it's about encouraging your employees to see their job as more than just a job–to own their job and their ideas. Once you've built this collaborative, trusting environment, your employees will bring ideas to the table. If it's their idea, put them in charge of it! If an employee wants to learn something new, provide the support for them to do it. Today, innovative companies don't hire employees to remain in one job for an eternity; they hire innovators who will contribute to the future of the company in a powerful way.

8. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Poor communication issues are at the root of many failures, and where I see entrepreneurs fail most often. You have a recipe for disaster when one hand doesn't know what the other is doing. But communication about processes and workflow aren't enough. Drill your values into your employees with ideas like those above and demonstrate them in your own behavior. Be authentic and, at times, vulnerable. If an employee isn't performing up to par, don't let your frustration and disappointment grow; engage in thoughtful conversations about it and create an improvement plan. If an employee has a win, celebrate!

Building a distinctive culture is not an overnight event, and it's not always easy. You'll hit some bumps in the road; remember Rule number 6: Never forget that your team, not your product, not your bank account, is your number-one asset.

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