When a company is just starting out, its leaders often don’t think that much about culture. After all, in a small business, the culture is generally simply you -- your work style and preferences. But as a company (or a team) grows, it can become more challenging to preserve the very cultural elements that have been key to your success.
And culture does matter. It’s the invisible force that sends signals about “how we do things here,” and as a result, it can have a major impact on what you get done and how you do it, whether you’re managing a single employee or a large team. So as that team is growing, it’s important to be thoughtful about how you can preserve your culture along the way.
1. Lead by example. Modeling the culture you want to create or maintain is easily the most powerful way to transmit the cultural values and behaviors you want your company or team to embody. In fact, your culture will look a lot like you. For example, if you mention in a meeting that you’re going to email a sales report around afterwards and then don’t follow through, your staff is likely to notice that and feel less obligation to take their own next steps seriously too. On the other hand, if you send an email saying, “I know I said I’d get this document out today, but I realized I should wait for input from a founder, so it’ll be tomorrow instead,” you’re modeling what it looks like to take details and commitments – even small ones – seriously.
2. Talk explicitly about your culture. Rather than relying on people to figure out your cultural expectations on their own, you can articulate your values through explicit discussion. For example, when you’re training new employees, you can discuss your values and what they mean in practice by talking through hypothetical scenarios and how the values would play out in them – as well as what behaviors wouldn’t be consistent with your culture’s values.
3. Reinforce your culture with feedback when you see cultural alignment – and when you don’t. If you see someone acting in a way that isn’t consistent with your cultural values – such as not paying attention to a client or dismissing their concerns – give feedback in the moment, and explain explicitly what you want to see instead. You can do the same thing when you see someone exemplifying what you want in your culture – for instance, you might praise people for strong examples of persistence or integrity or being extraordinarily helpful to a client or coworker.
4. Hire for culture fit. No matter how skilled someone might be, a hire is unlikely to be successful if the person is out of sync with key elements of your culture, such as treating people with respect, having a sense of humility, or being open to new ideas. That means that it’s wise to screen for candidates who are aligned with your organization’s core values and to include a discussion of your culture as part of your interviewing process.
Remember, too, that you’re sending messages about your culture from the moment a job applicant first contacts you: How responsive are you? Do you ask thoughtful, rigorous questions rather than typical interview fare? Do you convey a warm and positive tone during the interview? After all, the hiring process is a microcosm of your culture, and smart candidates – exactly the people you want to hire – will be picking up loads of messages about how you do things, and will carry those impressions with them if hired.