When I was leading my last business, I always knew that company culture was important. But what I needed to do about it and when to do it was a mystery to me. With a thousand other things demanding my time, thinking about culture was perpetually on the back burner. This was fine for a while until suddenly it felt too late.
The Moment that Culture Becomes Crucial
There’s a delicate balance in thinking about company culture because if the business isn’t working then culture isn’t going to save it. So your organization first needs to earn the right to exist and in doing so earn the right to scale. But then, as soon as you arrive there, things shift. The risk in the business moves from finding product-market fit to organizing people to capitalize on the opportunity that you’ve uncovered.
This is the moment where culture becomes perhaps the highest leverage investment for your business. A healthy culture can help you not only attract the right people but also get the best out of your team. Yet few founders give it the time that it needs. For me, I simply didn’t know what to do and when.
I’ve spent the last few years working with leaders and teams on culture, here’s the playbook that I use:
The First Steps to Take in Building Culture
Start with just your leadership team and get clear on three things that serve as your cultural foundation.
- Your purpose - Why does your organization exist? Left undefined people will make a best guess and at the worst of times their guess will be “a place to collect a paycheck.” You’re capable of so much more, so define it.
- Your vision - Where are you headed? What will be the evidence (outcomes, metrics, impact) that you’re on track? Your vision should feel like a magnet that pulls the team forward and makes clear what matters most.
- A culture code that captures your essence - What values, beliefs and/or behaviors make you, you? Can you define the 4-8 things that are yours to own? Clarity on your essence in some form of a culture code creates a shared language around what it means to be one of us. It serves as a touchpoint that anyone in the organization can refer back to as you build culture. If you’re not sure what a culture code might look like, Tettra has an amazing list.
With the foundation in place you and your team can start building upon it, here’s how…
Building Culture Every Day
The other mistake that I made, and see many other teams make, is thinking that culture is a project that gets completed.
At Twenty20, we created a culture code, delivered it to the team, integrated it into some of our work, and expected everything to fall into place from there. While certainly a step forward, what we created became stale quickly because we failed to continue to conversations and learning. Instead, culture needs to be treated like a product, always being iterated on and improved upon in the day-to-day.
Three no-brainer ways to do this:
- Establish a culture owner in the organization to monitor and drive forward ongoing culture building. This person should be a founder or executive leader and must have support from the rest of the organization in their work.
- Continually seek to embed your culture code into your processes: Two super easy places to start on this are in your hiring/onboarding and in your meetings. In fact, any time people interface with one another there are chances to build culture. Try things, talk about the impact, and iterate.
- Create regular, company-wide conversations: I suggest every team have regular all-hands meetings. As part of these, talk about your culture. Point to your culture code and dare to ask questions like “In what ways are we honoring (or not honoring) our culture code?” and “What can we do to make our culture code more alive in our work?” While bringing the entire team into the conversation can feel like it exposes you, it also can surface blindspots and new opportunities to build an amazing culture.
At best, ignoring culture is a missed opportunity. At worst, it can completely derail all of the progress that you’ve made so far. Start building culture before it’s too late.
Todd Emaus is a founder coach, culture builder, and partner at Evolution, a coaching and culture firm focused on helping leaders scale without losing their soul. He previously founded Twenty20 (acquired by Envato) which was a part of MuckerLab’s first class. It was his founder journey that led him to now support other leaders in being their very best and building companies that matter. You can follow him here on Twitter.