Many factors determine whether your startup will succeed or fail. Most are quite obvious, including your ability to distinguish a product or service from the competition, access to and effective use of startup capital, product-market fit, among others. But one less obvious factor is your corporate culture.
A positive culture can do wonders for an organization. It can boost morale by making the workday more pleasant, which translates into higher productivity and lower employee attrition. It can also improve external relationships, leading to happier clients and more effective collaboration with vendors.
By the same token, a negative culture can poison the office environment, damage external relationships, and generally lead the company down the road to ruin.
Few CEOs have deep expertise in building a corporate culture. So, most of them allow the culture to develop on its own, leaving the outcome somewhat to chance. For those interested in taking a more proactive approach to creating a company culture or trying to repair a corporate culture gone bad, I have suggested a few threshold practices below to help you down the right path.
Determine what values are important to your business.
In shaping your company culture, you must first understand what kind of company you want to be. And once you do, you must then consider what will most effectively advance you toward that goal.
Do you need hard work above all else? Do you really need a dress code? Do you need the team to work together, or is it best for them to work alone? By tackling these questions early, either on your own or, preferable, in collaboration with other founders or key stakeholders of the business, you will end up with a stronger sense of what sort of environment you want, and you can build the company in a way that is tailored to that vision.
Articulate your values.
Once you know what kind of culture your company needs, you must communicate that vision to others. Having a mission statement is a good first step, but it is not enough.
You must take the time to talk through the values and behaviors that will make the company succeed, and why they matter now and in the future. It is also helpful to train others to articulate those values for you, so that a strong sense of the corporate culture permeates the business at every level: in recruiting, during team projects and even when individuals are working independently. If the values of the business are articulated clearly and regularly, you will find yourself with lots of help in pursuing and maintaining the culture you want.
Protect your values.
Like virtually any other asset, a strong corporate culture requires care and protection.
After having successfully shaped a positive culture at the company, you should turn your attention to perpetuating what you have built. This effort begins with your hiring process. This does not mean that you should hire only people who closely resemble one another; rather, you should weave your corporate values into the evaluation of candidates, and strive to hire those whose values appear to be consistent with those of the company.
Moreover, to the extent that existing employees degrade the culture that you have built, you must act quickly to address the issue. CEOs often resist excising toxic but otherwise high-performing employees for fear of disrupting the critical work of the business. But rarely do such situations work themselves out on their own, and they often worsen as time goes by, causing long-term harm that far outweighs the short-term benefit of keeping culture-destroying teammates.
Protect your culture like you would a valuable gem, acting quickly to mitigate risks as they arise and investing in long-term asset preservation, and you will increase the odds that you maintain your great culture long into the future.
Building and maintaining a strong culture is much of what separates average startups from those with staying power. Focus on developing the right culture early, act quickly to preserve it, and you will certainly improve the odds that your startup achieves what you set out to accomplish.