Courtesy of Wikimedia, used with CC license

By Ed McLaughlin and Wyn Lydecker

A company can live or die by its culture, as much as any nation. Culture spans thousands of years of history, elements of language, religion, and aesthetics, all woven together in a glorious tapestry that can blanket kingdoms and define empires. It can drive people to feats of genius or acts of terrible violence. Corporate culture, however, does not have the luxury of all those powerful elements.  Many startups launch with no idea of what their culture will be. The founders let it evolve. But I wanted to define my startup’s culture from the beginning.

A huge part of company culture lies in communication. I recently wrote about how to communicate in business (I believe it holds true in the rest of life, too): be explicit about expectations, don’t assume. Transparency and openness are imperative both as values and for making sure everyone knows what the company values are.

Whatever you decide your company is going to hold up as its values, you personally must live up to those same values. “Do as I do, as well as what I say.” In fact, you have to be a paragon of your defined  values for them to stick. Ask how the values will play out on the grand scale of your business.

Our social media coordinator dabbles in philosophy. She calls this “applying categorical imperative to your own values.” What would it look like if everyone in your company had the exact same values you do and responded to situations in the same way? If it looks successful and positive, then it’s worth encoding in company culture.

When I was running my business, USI, I knew that my partners and I had to hold ourselves to the highest standards. We had to set the example to make a terrifically strong company. If we could be trusted, then that example would flow through the entire company. We all played by the same rules. We paid our vendors and our employees on time. We held people accountable for their actions and words, just as the partners expected to be held accountable by our entire staff, our customers, and our vendors.

We encouraged employees at all levels to own up to their mistakes. People are often afraid to admit to making mistakes. At USI, we wanted to know about mistakes quickly. If you raised your hand early, apologized, and then made reparations, the mistake could be fixed quickly. Fast action and openness could only serve to help the relationships with customers, colleagues, managers, and employees.

We did not hide information and valued transparency. This practice created trust among the entire staff. Managers and executives had to play by the same rules. Everyone in our company flew coach – no exceptions.

The story of Sherry Stewart Deutschmann (My Previous Bosses Are Now My Customers, as told to The New York Times) contains a warning about the consequences of unhealthy company culture. Her first job in her industry did not value her or her input. Mistakes were made, and no one seemed to care about the loss of productivity and revenue they incurred. She left and started a competing business so she could put the emphasis on openness, integrity, and commitment to excellence. Her old company folded, and her new one continues to excel.

A big part of Sherry’s success lies in her company’s commitment to openness. Every employee knows what it costs to run the business, down to the 1.5¢ each envelope costs. They know every time a sale is made because they share in the profits. Every voice is treated respectfully, every word is said openly, and joys and sorrows are shared equally. Everyone understands how the company makes money and is engaged with helping generate a profit. The culture bears its own fruit.

Making sure that new hires know the company culture when they come in ensures that only those willing to live by the same principles stay with the team (that’s one of the places your communication really needs to shine). When a new person joined USI, we sat them down, talked through the company’s way of approaching things, and appended the following to their offer of employment:

This employment offer is based on your commitment to USI’s standard Business Practices and Operating Philosophy including:

•          Making commitments and keeping them;

•          Providing total quality and integrity in everything you do;

•          Being a team player;

•          Holding yourself accountable to the USI team; and

•          Holding the USI team accountable to you.

What will your company culture look like? What values will you ask every member to uphold? Know the answers to these questions and be intentional in communicating them to everyone.

Copyright © 2014 by Ed McLaughlin All rights reserved.