As a business owner, what one aspect of business should you focus on to deliver most value? My answer: company culture, every time. Why? Because company culture lies at the heart of everything that really matters to great business. In fact, I would go further and say that you can’t have a sustained, high-performing business unless your company culture is healthy.
The term 'company culture' is bandied around a lot these days, but for me it essentially what it feels like to operate within the business and/or be treated by it. Ideally, the description of company culture is encapsulated in clear statements of the company’s purpose, direction and, most importantly, core values. Core values define what fundamentally matters most to your business and which you will not give up on, no matter what. Few businesses have truly individual values, but it is the unique combination of them that effectively characterize the personality of your business.
Actually, whether you like it or not, your business already has a company culture! However, that may not correspond to what you want it to be. That starts with getting crystal clear on what you want your culture to be – and then writing down what you truly aspire to be, and sharing it with all your staff so that it is clear ‘how things are done around here’. Company values typically include terms like: integrity, customer service, innovation, loyalty, open communication and so on – and everyone should be held accountable to these.
Make no mistake, however: Company culture starts at the top, with you. If your company culture isn’t what you want it to be, you and your leadership team members need to take a good hard, critical look at your own leadership to ensure that you are not perpetuating undesirable actions. As the saying has it, ‘the fish rots from the head down.’
When core values are defined, they create a behavioural expectation amongst staff that leaders will be role models for these values, so behaving congruently with them is essential. When your leaders or your staff do not behave in alignment with the defined values you have defined, they need to be held accountable, otherwise those values very quickly fall into disrepute. If, for example, you want a business that values time and honours commitments, but your meetings typically start late or, worse, when the most senior person eventually arrives, then you’re not walking the talk.
There are many ways to define core values and the format selected is very much a function of how the company wants to best represent these. These may stated simply as:
Exactly how you define your core values is up to you. Here are three common options:
The client I’ve worked with longest opted for format (3) above, and many years ago now defined the following five core values:
This last value may look a little odd, and it’s certainly unusual – I can’t think of another client which has adopted it – but there’s sound reasoning behind it. It is a family-run business that wants to recognize those that have contributed to the business in the past, those that still do today (the company CEO, Administration Manager, Sales Manager and Operations Supervisor are all family members currently serving) and those that will contribute in the future (the current CEO is likely to retire within the next two years). In fact, when I have conducted staff surveys, staff members frequently comment on how they enjoy feeling ‘part of the family,’ since the leadership team makes a point of treating all staff as if they truly were family.
And it works! The company has seen its revenue treble over the past five years and profit grow by well over six times… and it’s no coincidence. These values are well and truly lived and breathed by the company. Here’s an example. One of their truck drivers, who was very good at his job – great when in front of the customer and fully able to convey product safely and securely to their destinations – from time to time would just feel like not coming into work on a Monday. He’d ring in ‘sick’ – when he wasn’t – and his unscheduled absences caused significant inconvenience to deliveries that needed to be made that day. Naturally, the company went through the standard disciplinary process, and at every stage highlighted how his actions deviated from the defined core values listed above, in the following very obvious ways:
In the end, no matter how good the truck driver was when he was at work, his failure to comply with the business’s core values left no choice: he was sacked.
Consider the implications of this. Had he been permitted to remain, he would have been living proof that these values were just for show. In holding him accountable, to the point of having to let him go, the leaders were making it very clear that they meant every last word, and would not compromise. The business’s continued excellent culture and financial performance are testament to the value of following through with the defined values.
Ian Ash is a member of The Network of Consulting Professionals and an expert at transforming company culture. You can contact him on 0418 366418 or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org