During my company’s first six years, my only exposure to culture was a boring session on the subject at a minor conference. To me, culture seemed like so much marketing fluff. I didn’t see the point—my people and I were all grown adults, after all. I thought we were mature enough to self-manage.
It wasn’t like I ignored culture altogether. We had a mission statement. Whoop-de-doo. But we didn’t have a functional vision statement. I didn’t even know what that meant. We didn’t have clear core values either. I didn’t really have clarity of my own core values either, at least none that I had defined and committed to living.
My lack of knowledge of business culture gave me a pass when I made bad decisions. There was no litmus test for holding myself accountable. The impact on my staff and the business slowly caught up with me, though, and over time the effects began to show. My staff wasn’t happy. Then, good people began leaving.
It wasn’t until I figured out that culture went far beyond a mission statement that I was able to start turning things around. If you’re where I was—if you’re running a company and having “people problems,” or if you think that a mission statement will stop people from having problems in the first place—then I’d like to share some valuable lessons about company culture with you, so you can avoid losing good people because you didn’t do enough to define your company’s values.
Values Are Who You Are at Your Core
When you get right down to it, a company’s culture is defined by its values. Without values, there are no boundaries and no structure for communicating with each other. There’s no common understanding about what you’re trying to accomplish. And obviously, just writing a mission statement won’t fix any of that.
You can’t change a bad culture by working around the edges. That’s like peeling the brown spots off a rotten apple. To change the way people communicate, behave, make decisions, and treat each other, you have to start with removing the rot from the core. At that core are values; they shape the way your business operates.
With values, you have a touchstone for making decisions. This part is super important, because though companies do a good job creating a mission statement and vision statement, their values often suck. It’s as if they googled “value statement” and grabbed the first thing that came up.
Values are personal. Even though they apply to your company, if you want your values to shape the culture in a positive way, they have to be ideals you believe in and either currently live by or aspire to uphold. You have to believe in them enough to commit to running your business by them.
Values are Guides
At my company, Intrinium, we refer to our values as “pillars.” Like sturdy columns that form the structure of a building, our pillars form the moral structure of the business. They make evident who we are and what we stand for. They also drive our behavior, actions, and decisions.
We have five pillars: integrity, accountability, proactive communication, respectful candor, and growth mindset. These pillars apply to our actions with each other and with our customers.
As you can see, these go far beyond a mission statement. Although pillars guide how we make business decisions, they are not restrictive or prescriptive. They ensure healthy interaction without limiting anyone’s thought process.
The Growth Mindset pillar is an example. People learn things in different ways, and I don’t always expect my staff to take a specified training. What’s more important is that they continue to learn, through whatever means, and around whatever topics make sense for them and their role. When the learning path is clear, the person follows it.
Values Free You
Values empower employees to make decisions on their own without worrying whether it’s the right call. This not only builds confidence and character in your staff, but it also allows them to get their jobs done without having to check in with their leadership on every single decision. This frees up time for you and your executive team to focus on strategies for improving and growing the business.
It’s like the African proverb “It takes a village.” Everyone is responsible for enabling others to reach their full potential. Likewise, they’re all responsible for keeping each other in line. The rules of the village—the values or pillars—are established and everyone agrees to abide by them.
When someone is operating outside those boundaries, it’s apparent. Strong values create a self-regulating mechanism. People perform within the culture, or they self-select out of it. With a strong culture, you rarely have to fire anyone, and if you do, they know it’s coming. There are no surprises.
Individuals Align to Culture…or They Don’t
Having a mission statement makes clear what you are trying to accomplish to the highest standard, in the present. In the simplest form, it explains what your company does. A vision statement looks to the future. But without values, there are no rules for how you accomplish either.
Culture is those rules. Culture drives people to work toward a shared purpose in a healthy way. It motivates them to want what you want because ultimately, they want it too. They aren’t just signing on for a paycheck—they want themselves, their colleagues, and the company to succeed.
Of course, not everyone will conform to your culture. People may flat out just not be a good fit. If this is the case, they will figure that out soon enough and opt out of the company. They’ll leave.
Culture Brings Everyone Into Alignment
Defining your values and building a culture around them creates a common language. A healthy culture obliterates ulterior motives and vague expectations. It’s the filter through which you view the people and the decisions that drive your organization.
That filter also helps you attract the people who align with your mission (and repel the people who don’t). When you establish a culture based on your values, you set yourself and your company up for success.
I know they say hindsight is 20/20. In my case, it’s true: looking back, I can see how important culture is to running a successful business. Far more than just some empty platitudes or fancy words on a website, your culture (and the values that drive it) are truly the foundation of your company.
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