In the first six years of my business, my only exposure to culture was a boring session on the subject at a small conference. To me, culture seemed to me like a marketing gimmick. I didn’t see the point – my people and I were all adults, after all. I thought we were mature enough to self-manage.
It wasn’t like I completely ignored the culture. We had a mission statement. Whoop-de-doo. But we didn’t have a working vision statement. I didn’t even know what that meant. We also did not have clear core values. I didn’t really have any clarity on my own core values either, at least none that I had defined and committed to living.
My lack of knowledge of the corporate culture gave me a pass when I made bad decisions. There was no litmus test to hold me accountable. The impact on my staff and the business slowly caught up with me, and over time the effects started to be felt. My staff were not happy. Then the right people started to leave.
It wasn’t until I realized that culture was so much more than a mission statement that I was able to start making a difference. If you are where I was, run a business and have “human issues” or believe that a mission statement will keep people from having issues in the first place, then I’d like to share some valuable lessons on corporate culture with you, to avoid losing good people because you haven’t done enough to define your company’s values.
Values are who you are at your heart
Basically, the culture of a company is defined by its values. Without values there are no boundaries and no structure to communicate with one another. There is no common understanding of what you are trying to accomplish. And obviously, just writing a mission statement won’t solve all of that.
You can’t change a bad crop by working around the edges. It’s like peeling the brown spots from a rotten apple. To change the way people communicate, behave, make decisions, and treat each other, you need to start by removing the core rot. At this core are values; they shape the way your business operates.
With values, you have a touchstone for making decisions. This part is very important, because while companies do a good job creating a mission statement and a vision statement, their values often suck. It’s as if they google “statement of value” and catch the first thing that comes up.
Values are personal. Even if they apply to your business, if you want your values to shape culture in a positive way, they must be ideals. you believe and currently live or aspire to defend. You have to believe in them enough to commit to running your business by them.
Values are guides
In my company, Intrinium, we call our values “pillars”. Like solid columns that form the structure of a building, our pillars form the moral structure of the company. They clearly show who we are and what we stand for. They also determine our behavior, actions and decisions.
We have five pillars: integrity, responsibility, proactive communication, respectful openness and the growth mindset. These pillars apply to our actions with each other and with our clients.
As you can see, these go way beyond a mission statement. While the Pillars guide the way we make business decisions, they are not restrictive or prescriptive. They ensure healthy interaction without limiting anyone’s thinking process.
The Growth Mindset pillar is one example. People learn things in different ways, and I don’t always expect my staff to take specific training. What is more important is that they continue to learn, by all means and around all the subjects that are meaningful to them and to their role. When the learning path is clear, the person follows it.
Values set you free
Values allow employees to make decisions for themselves without worrying about whether it’s the right decision. This not only builds the confidence and character of your staff, but it also allows them to do their jobs without having to consult with their management for every decision. This frees up time for you and your management team to focus on strategies for improving and growing the business.
It’s like the African proverb “You need a village”. Everyone is responsible for enabling others to reach their full potential. Likewise, they are all responsible for keeping themselves online. The rules of the village – the values or pillars – are established and everyone agrees to respect them.
When someone is operating outside of those limits, it’s obvious. Strong values create a self-regulatory mechanism. People play in culture, or they self-select outside of it. With a strong culture, you rarely have to fire someone, and if you do, they know it’s happening. There are no surprises.
People align with culture … or they don’t
Having a mission statement makes it clear what you are trying to accomplish at the highest level, in the present. In its simplest form, it explains what your business does. A vision statement looks to the future. But without values, there are also no rules on how you perform.
Culture is these rules. Culture prompts people to work in a healthy way towards a common goal. It motivates them to want what you want because at the end of the day, they want it too. They don’t just sign for a paycheck, they want themselves, their co-workers and the company to be successful.
Of course, not everyone will conform to your culture. People just may not be a good fit. If so, they will figure it out soon enough and walk away from the business. They will leave.
Culture brings everyone together
Defining your values and building a culture around them creates a common language. Healthy culture erases ulterior motives and vague expectations. It is the filter through which you visualize the people and decisions that drive your organization.
This filter also helps you attract people who align with your mission (and repel people who don’t). When you establish a culture based on your values, you are preparing yourself and your business for success.
I know they say the hindsight is 20/20. In my case, it’s true: Looking back, I can see how important culture is to running a successful business. Much more than just empty platitudes or fancy words on a website, your culture (and the values that drive it) are truly the foundation of your business.
Written by Nolan Garrett. For more tips on how to create a culture based on your values, you can find F * ck Me Running (a Business)! on Amazon.
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