Culture Is Best Built From Day One

January 29, 2020 Sabrina Baker

4-minute read

toddler at the bottom of staircase

For almost nine years I have been working exclusively with startups and small businesses. For us, small business is defined as any business that has less than 500 employees. The majority of our clients, however, are much smaller than that – less than 100, even. I have learned some very hard truths about small businesses, the challenges they face, and the unique opportunities they have over their larger counterparts. The largest opportunity lies in the ability for small firms to implement HR programs when they are small and then scale up as they grow.

I have learned that businesses often wait until they have 100, 200, or even 500 employees before thinking about formal programs such as onboarding, employee engagement, or leadership development. Even worse, they wait until these things are so out of control that they are affecting the productivity of the business. They believe that since they are small, employee-focused ideas just do not apply to them or will take care of themselves.

When you have only 12 employees, the culture is what it is, or at least that’s what they think. Yet culture is the starting point for all other employee programs and waiting until it is a problem before addressing it means you are starting from a negative place that can be nearly impossible to pull out of.

Here’s the real truth. When founders think about what type of culture they want to build, what type of leaders they want to have, and how they might go about engaging employees, they can put a deliberate strategy in place to build exactly that. While some parts of culture are organic, there is also a strategy behind creating the exact type of environment in which employees can thrive.

From the start, founders can think of how they will build culture. They can put plans in place for how they will align business strategy with individual roles. They can decide how they will provide recognition and feedback. They can implement procedures – from day one – for engaging employees. All of these plans start with one very clear intention: a vision.

Founders and small business leaders are often very good at building business plans. They know exactly what type of customer they are targeting, what the pathway to profitability is, and how much funding they need to get there. They even know how many employees and in what roles they need to fulfill their goals. What they don’t often think about is the vision of the company. Vision creates value which creates culture. You can not build an effective culture without a guiding vision.

A vision, well explained, will create purpose. Visions are exciting. They provide a road map of where the company is headed. The vision creates a picture of purpose that employees can easily see themselves in. It sets the stage for what the future will look like. The vision allows the company to make decisions around who they want to work with and how they want to work easier. Not just for leaders, but for every employee.

That purpose created by the vision will instill company values. Company values create a set of behaviors that all employees should follow. They know what behaviors are expected and will be recognized and rewarded. When employees know how what they are doing aligns with the overall purpose or how they are to act based on company values, companies are less likely to have rogue cultures that are outside of what they intended in the first place. Culture and engagement are built from day one simply by creating a vision employees can feel and building forward from there. From this vision and values, recognition programs, feedback platforms, and ongoing development programs are easy to create, maintain, and scale as the business grows.

Leaders who are looking to document vision and values, especially after being in business for a while, should get feedback from outside the C-suite. You want to set a vision that employees buy into. Getting feedback from employees across all departments can help set a true vision that everyone feels good about following.

The easy part of all this is usually writing out what the vision and values are. The more difficult part is execution. I use the word deliberate a lot when working with small business leaders. The reason I use that term over and over is that in everything they do, leaders have to be deliberate about holding to the vision and values. They have to hold themselves and everyone else on the team accountable to carrying out the vision and values in a way that moves the business forward. Study after study has shown that culture affects the bottom line. This isn’t exclusive to enterprise-level businesses; it applies to the smallest of the small as well. Being very deliberate, as early as possible, about vision, values, and culture can move a small business to profitability faster than a well-written business plan.

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About the Author

Sabrina Baker

Sabrina is founder of Acacia HR Solutions, an HR consultancy.

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