How To Shape Your Company Culture Before It's Too Late

Hiring and growth aren't the only signs of a healthy company. The cultures they build must be sustainable.

New hires pour through the door most mornings at fast-growing startups and other companies fortunate enough to be booming in this economy. And by that measure alone, those companies have a golden future—right?

Maybe so, depending on whether leaders at those companies pay attention to the right mix of business priorities, including one that doesn’t make the list too often: conscious culture shaping.

Veteran leaders of fast-growing companies see culture building as key to success over the long haul, but we’re not talking here about bagel Wednesdays, free beer in the fridge, or foosball tables.

Shape it, or be Shaped By It!

Company culture comes together around many different business practices, what some experts like to call "behavioral norms," but most employees simply know as "the way things are done around here."

These are the formal and informal activities and accepted ways for how people operate—everything from how leaders conduct themselves and how meetings are run, to office dress codes and the physical look and feel of the place.

Here’s a given about culture regardless of the organization: It’ll take shape whether you focus on it or not. The important choice for leaders is whether to consciously build the culture they need for success—or just let things just play out and hope for the best.

My way. Your way. Which way?

The issue in rapid growth companies with lots of hiring is this: Without proper attention and cultivation, company culture is likely to be a hodge-podge of the many different—and often conflicting—mindsets that new employees bring with them from their old jobs.

What’s more, if you don’t regularly tend to it, whatever you think is in place is easily undone as new hires simply do things their way—and unknowingly dilute current practices.

How does that happen? It’s simple: They’re new and nobody said anything about how to operate. But make no mistake, this culture stuff doesn’t just apply to startups. Many companies spend years with cultural mashups of behaviors and practices that hinder productivity and success.

Remember the storm of protests that new CEO Marissa Mayer caused at Yahoo (and across the business landscape) when she ended telecommuting at the Silicon Valley giant?

At the center of Mayer’s decision was her concern that telecommuting was too widespread at Yahoo. She moved quickly to end a cultural practice that she thought worked against building a cohesive culture and driving strong business results.

Meetings, Decisions, Measuring Success

Leaders deal with many priorities in building a company culture—and among the initial priorities are being clear on company mission, vision, and values. But easily overlooked are the more tangible issues: where the proverbial rubber meets the road in shaping a company culture.

Three important everyday cultural practices that leaders can actively shape to maximize how people work together effectively are:

1. Meeting Design: Not the sexiest topic in the world, but crucial when it comes to getting work done. Meetings are a microcosm of the organization’s culture, and you’re sunk if they’re just free-for-alls. Plenty can go wrong in meetings, which need desired outcomes that are clear, specific, and measurable.

Some people dominate in meetings—surely you’ve noticed—and that means introverts (often with great ideas) are silenced. And then there are tangents, conflicts—whew, if you’re not careful, meetings can add up to a lot of wasted time.

Try this: Don’t meet if you don’t know what the group’s aiming to accomplish. Avoid most problems with meetings by formalizing a process of desired outcomes, preparing clear agendas, assigning roles in each meeting; and keeping a group record (notes) of what was agreed to, next steps, etc.

2. Clear Decision Making: The lack of clarity in decision making can hurt company growth and performance in two primary ways. First, so-called legacy employees block progress because they want a voice in every decision (as they had when the company was a startup). Secondly, peers working across functions have a hard time understanding decision making authority—so they twirl, wasting precious time without advancing the work.

Try this: Decide on a simple decision-making framework and make it part of the culture. Growing companies need this ASAP! And choose a flexible framework that allows for a range of choices, from "Decide and Announce" to "Gather Input from Groups or Individuals" to the all-inclusive and time-consuming "Consensus." A common framework will help teams clarify involvement quickly and easily at the very start of any initiative. It will help leaders manage expectations about who’s appropriate to include, and speed up execution.

3. Defining Success: Hiring the best and the brightest employees often engenders a competitive environment, where short-term results trump long-term success.

Try this: With an eye to playing the long game, focus on two additional dimensions of success in addition to results: process and relationship.

Clear and effective processes are critically important—and efficiency suffers without them. Leaders must pay attention to roles and responsibilities, key milestones, project plans, the technology piece, etc.

Relationships must be managed, too: Bad relationships can produce back-fighting, sabotage, and a toxic environment. Trust, mutual respect, and good communication are key, and perhaps obvious. It is open, direct, and honest feedback that is the oil in the engine of workplace relationships. Leaders can model this practice both by providing feedback and asking for feedback from their employees.

The process and relationship dimensions are often leading indicators of what you can expect in terms of results. Get them right consistently and results will follow. Here’s why: People who do not trust each other, or do not agree on how to work together, can’t be expected to accomplish excellent results regularly.

And if people are unclear or in disagreement about the results they are seeking, they often will adopt different approaches and processes—leading to conflicts that erode trust and respect.

These rules of engagement are critical for any company looking to execute better and faster—especially rapidly growing organizations that are inventing how they’ll operate as they grow. Emphasized early and often, these often-overlooked priorities empower employees to engage in the business vs. engaging each other around whose way of operating is best.

Beth O’Neill is a senior consultant at Interaction Associates, a global leadership development firm headquartered in Boston.

[Image: Flickr user Becky Wetherington]

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4 Comments

  • Dawn Walker-Elders

    This is really an ongoing issue for organizations new and old. As I learned from IA years ago, every time a new member is added, a new group is effectively formed, so even organizations that have existed for quite a while, will have cultural variations that need conscious attention.

  • The value of carefully planning meetings can not be over stated. I just finished working with a client that was struggling with keeping his team engaged, his problem was he tried to put everything into one weekly meeting. Now the 5-6 topics that his team needs to discuss regularly each have a dedicated 30-45 minute meeting each week. He said this one change has made such a difference in moral and productivity. Great point!

  • Great article, Beth. What's very misleading for the younger set is that the CEO or president of an organization is most times NOT the leader of culture. He/she should be but what we have seen in the branding work that we do -- identifying what the cultural issues are, that are getting in the way of productivity -- is that CEOs today don't come in as a leader with the whole package anymore. Start-ups in particular would be better off to designate a CCO - chief culture officer - who has a emotional IQ.