how-to-run-a-small-business

What is company culture - and how to influence it

At times, “company culture” might feel like an interminable buzz word. But whether you are starting a hip new tech start-up or a more sober-feeling small business, you can’t escape it. Your company will have a culture regardless, so you want to be sure that you are moulding it and harnessing in such a way that it helps you to grow your business.

Here are six key points to bear in mind when trying to make sense of and establish your company culture:

1 – Who you are

If you’re lucky or prescient enough to be thinking about this before your business has grown beyond its first couple of employees, then the task of figuring out your company culture will be significantly easier. Focusing on yourself and any co-founders, look around the room and get a sense of what values you currently embody. After all what is company culture if not the set of values your team operates and stands by?

For any work around culture to be authentic, it has to start off from a place of introspection: who you are today and how you work today. You can use books and guides to identify the cultural traits you desire (transparency, hustle, etc) but be skeptical about how much people can actually change. If you and your co-founders are all shy but serious problem-solvers with families and domestic responsibilities, then “fun-loving” is unlikely to be a cultural corner-stone of the place you work. Be conscious of such limitations all while remembering that culture is about consistency and identity. Don’t worry if you don’t embody an ethos which you’ve seen other companies promote, there’s no hierarchy between different organisational values. Figure out who you are and own it.

2 – Knowing what’s important to you as a company

It’s easier to know what turns you off in a business setting than what really stimulates you. If you’re a bunch of scrappy young tech founders and any show of formality or us of business jargon really gets on your nerves, then you know to avoid that. However, pinpointing exactly what it is that you want your business to represent and live by is a far harder task. Criticising is always simpler than constructing, but it helps you narrow the field.

Making a company culture clear in your mind is about picking and choosing. Look around the office and see what values you already display, then choose the ones that you think would best inspire others and lead the company to success. It could be that you all show hustle, that you all take the time to support and appreciate one another. Think about how each of those different cultures and values will make your business come across, and choose the ones that aligns best with your vision of the company.

3 – Hiring

One of the first instances where you will put your burgeoning ideas about company culture to the test will be in the context of hiring. Who you set out to hire and the candidate you end up asking to join your team, says a lot about what values you hold dear as a business. This is because the people who are in the room will have the biggest impact on forming the future of your company. If you can’t bring yourself to use your cultural values as a selection factor during the hiring process, then either the person will not be a good fit or you haven’t been honest with yourself about your company’s culture. Recruitment is the perfect litmus test for those values.

4 – Choose what you reward

Once your team is beginning to take shape and employees are hitting or missing targets and displaying good or bad behaviours, this is when culture comes into play in a serious sense. You can use the values you have set out to steer behaviours within the company. Think about which behaviours you will reward, either psychologically or materially, and which ones you will penalise.

Once again, people can only change so much. So if you weren’t honest enough to choose cultural touch-stones that reflected people within the organisation, then it is likely that this process of evaluation and reward will be more painful than it should be. That could be a sign that the cultural values need re-aligning. You can only ever steer other people’s behaviours so far.

5 – Culture changes

While the task of setting out a collection of values that will drive recruitment and management choices is a daunting one, it’s worth remembering that the benefits of having a well-aligned company will far outweigh any teething troubles. And that it is all that the above troubleshooting points are: teething problems. Because the most crucial thing to remember is that as your company changes, so will its people. And though the shift may be slow and subtle, eventually certain cultural values will be out of sync with the best practices for your business. This is not a cause for concern. A small and relative junior team which has an emphasis on everyone being “generalists” might not want to prioritise that cultural value in the high-skilled software engineers they hire after a successful funding round.

The importance of company culture is that it serves as an accurate reflection of the business. That means it should not be set in stone. It works best only as a guiding light. When it starts to shine down a foolish path, reassess and change it. Just as your company adapts, so can its values. Changing company culture is not necessarily a sign of failure, but more a reflection of business growth.

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