Building a small business culture

I'm fortunate to work with a small number of high-growth businesses. The problems these businesses face are what you expect - systems and processes are struggling to keep up, people have to adjust to bigger workloads, new roles and a sometimes frenetic pace, and managing increasing demands on cashflow. But the bedrock of making it through periods of hyper growth is culture. With the right culture in place, you can navigate almost any kind of problem. When a team works as a team there is no emergency too big to solve, no client demand that can not be met in some form or another. Without that culture, everything starts spinning out of control because the management team don't have time to handle every emergency.

From my own experiences - and working with these clients - instilling the right culture is not that difficult. It takes dedication, repetition and constant reinforcement - but it can be done.

Here's how it works.

Culture Focal Point

To instil a superior culture in a team, the culture has to be expressed in a small number of simple concepts. Anything too complex or difficult to remember is prone to failure.

It starts with a goal, or focal point.

From a culture point of view, there should be only one ultimate goal for a business, and that goal should be something outside of, or bigger than, the organisation.

For most organisations, the one measure by which success can be measured is "happy customers".

When customers are happy they will become raving fans, come back for more and refer other potential customers to the business and its products. Provided the business and financial models are solid (margin, profitability etc) the business will be successful if it ensures it has happy customers.

The goal also has to be something outside of, or bigger than, the business itself. Organisations that hold goals about themselves as the ultimate goal will eventually forget that their customers are the most important thing. So, for example, "being the best and biggest supplier of widgets" is an internally focused goal. Employees will be driven by becoming bigger and better, which does not necessarily mean happy customers.

A simple, clear and outwardly-focused goal becomes a focal point for the organisation. It can, and should, be repeated ad nauseam, displayed on posters, show up on letterheads and be reinforced at every meeting.

For most businesses, "happy customers" is a good goal and focal point.

Culture Legs

The focal point must be supported by a small number of "legs". These are the things that, if you get them right, will result in happy customers.

For most businesses, the legs I see as the most important are:

  • superior product;
  • exceptional customer service; and
  • unbreakable teamwork.

The focal point and legs lend themselves to a visual representation (a three-legged stool is quite common). The message this conveys to employees is simple, straightforward and easy to remember. Again, the three legs (together with the focal point) can be reinforced through posters, language and repetition.

The focal point and legs lend themselves to questions that matter:

  • What am I going to do today to make more happy customers?
  • What am I going to do today to deliver superior product?
  • What am I going to do today to deliver exceptional customer service?
  • How am I going to help the team today to be successful?

Note the personal angle (what am I or how am I) and immediacy (today is present in each of the questions).

Just about every single situation - and how it can best be handled - can be measured against these questions. The questions can be used to coach people on how they should be thinking about a situation and determine if they did the right thing when things went wrong.

Building a happy team

If you can get these three legs solid, you will not only have happy customers, you will also have a happy team. The top three motivators for employees are:

  • Autonomy - the ability to direct your own work;
  • Mastery - the opportunity to learn, get better at your job and expand your skills; and
  • Purpose - knowing that what you do is connected to a higher purpose.

Of these three, purpose is the strongest motivator. As Dan Pink says in Drive:

People who find purpose in their work unlock the highest level of the motivation game. It's connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives the deepest motivation. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and into work without groaning and grumbling — something that you just can't fake.

If the focal point of the business is "happy customers", the purpose of the business should be the same (or similar). Being part of this purpose - and seeing it come to fruition - makes employees feel part of something bigger and share in the success of more happy customers.

Making culture visible

A culture will wither and die if it is not constantly being held up, reinforced and lived by everyone in the business. One way to build and maintain visibility is through visual display (posters, meetings, email signatures, etc).

Another way - even more powerful - is through measurement.

The focal point (purpose) and the three legs can each be measured (even if some measurements are subjective). If the measurements are made public and used as the driver for how you do business (and what needs improvement), it becomes the driver for how your employees behave (what gets measured gets done).

Here's a critical bit:

Once you hold up the measurements and ask for improvements, you have to use them consistently and frequently.

One way to do this is through weekly management meetings and monthly town hall meetings (where everyone can see how well we're doing). Create a format for presenting the measures that you can consistently use - measures down the left and a timeline across the top is useful to show progress over time.

How this helps

The focal point and three legs are drivers for employee behaviour. If they are constantly reinforced and held up as the key measures for the business as a whole, they will eventually become part of how employees think and behave.

So, for example, you can ask questions like:

  • how did that help to make that customer happy?
  • how did that help us provide exceptional customer service?
  • how did that help build an unbreakable team?
  • how did that help us deliver superior product?

And so on.

The principle behind the approach is to give all employees a simple and very clear framework for understanding how they should behave - and what constitutes success. When someone strays, they can easily be reminded of what good behaviour looks like, and determine if they did the right thing.

Bad behaviour is an insidious thing and you will never be able to catch and correct all of it. But hold these four things (focal point plus legs) up, constantly reinforce it and you will make it very clear what constitutes good behaviour.

The framework (or model) is simple enough to be adopted throughout the business. Drive it from the top, and make it part of the everyday language everyone uses to make it become part of the fabric of who and what you are.

I hope this helps.

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