Q&A: What are the best ways to build an extremely strong company culture?

With “great” being a subjective term I’ll avoid being prescriptive in my answer in terms of “what” the culture should be but will be prescriptive in “how” you can do it. There are many effective formulas, but the one below is nice and easy.

  1. As with any initiative and goal you need to start with a clear vision in your mind of what this great company culture should look like. It needs to be so clear to you that you could practically paint a picture of it. The slightest mist in your mind becomes a choking fog in the mind of the rest of the organization.
  2. Identify behaviors that would take place in this ideal culture. Most people refer to these as Core Values, but you can call them whatever you’d like. Make sure these are the behaviors you really want to see. Think about not only the good side, but the bad side of these behaviors. For instance, if you want passionate people you need to remember that passion can lead to emotional disagreements. Are you willing to support people when the “negative” aspect of a core value comes out?
  3. Take these behaviors and rate your people on each one from a scale of 1–5 or 1–10 (or just have a yes/no rating). If you find that most of your people are demonstrating these behaviors, great! If you find the opposite being true, you may need to go back to step one. You hired these people but they don’t align with what you want. So either you need to replace them (and change your hiring process) or you need to change the vision.
  4. Once you have behaviors that you’re fully comfortable with you should immediately start recognizing people when they demonstrate the behaviors. A simple “Hey Maria, I really liked when you XXXX the other day” goes a long way, especially when you’re consistent about it.
  5. After being intentional for a month or so about giving positive feedback, you can make your “official” announcement about the behaviors if you’d like. Because you’ve been encouraging people already, they will see that the behaviors are real and something you’re already serious about. This is much preferred to the idea of making an “official” announcement and then becoming intentional.
  6. Continue step 4 from now until you die. When you have meetings or 1:1s with managers and people who report to you make sure you’re asking them for instances where they’re seeing their people demonstrate these behaviors. Ask them if they’ve recognized that person and, regardless of whether or not they have, make sure you do it.

The biggest stumbling block I’ve seen is being so focused on outcomes that a person or team can be discouraged because, although they demonstrated every behavior you’d want to see, the outcome was a “failure” and the leadership fails to acknowledge their efforts. You can mitigate this by asking “did our actions align with our desired behaviors?” If so make sure to still recognize the team and take the approach of “we did a great job of XXX but obviously the outcome isn’t what we were hoping for”.

The other big stumbling block is not being willing to fire someone when it’s clear they’re not aligned with your values because they’re “productive”. They may be producing good outcomes but you’re putting profits over culture. In this scenario you’re being inauthentic about what you want to see in your culture. This is the quickest way to lose credibility.

I hope this is helpful and would love to know what you decide on.

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