There’s a well known story (or maybe it’s an urban myth) about a CEO telling his HR Director to go out and get him “one of those culture things“.

I’m not sure if it’s a true story or not, but it does underscore the fact that many business owners struggle with culture. They know it’s important, but beyond that they often have difficulty defining it, and building it into their business practices. So it helps to be clear about what culture actually is, before talking about how to build one that everyone will embrace. First, let’s start by looking at what it’s not.

While “Tell me about your company’s culture” seems like a pretty simple and straightforward question to ask, what I often hear in return is anything but. In one camp, are those who tell me about the free coffee and snacks (a staple of any startup, particularly those in tech), how people rally together as a team, and how everyone gets their birthdays off. In another camp, I’m told about how their culture is all about performance, revenue, and accountability. And finally, there’s a third group who default to the standard response of “we work hard and we play hard”.

It’s here where culture’s identity crisis originates, because none of the above actually define what their culture really is. The first and third groups are actually talking about ways they express their culture, while the second group are speaking about the results of their culture. I’m sure the marketing and creative folks out there can relate, because it’s similar to asking customers what they think their brand is, only to hear them go on about their company logo.

Here’s how I define culture: it’s how everyone in your company thinks, feels and behaves. This includes everyone who thinks they have the best jobs ever, to those who think their jobs are dreadful; everyone who feels right at home, to those who feel like it’s just a pay cheque; and those who behave like adults, to those who behave like three year olds. Given this, it’s hard to imagine anyone could have a good company culture let alone a great one, but it can be done.

So how do you create a company culture that everyone – employees and customers alike – will love? Here are three fundamental tips to get you started:

1) B.Y.O.C. (Build Your Own Culture)

The best way to ensure that your culture will authentically reflect who you are, and create a positive and harmonious working environment, is to build it by design – not by chance – and not by copying someone else’s. Culture is a living entity you create through who you hire, how you lead, how you make decisions, handle conflict, and observe customs and traditions – as well as a dozen other inputs – and it will ultimately form the heart of your company. Something this critical has to be deliberately and thoughtfully planned out.

2) Define what matters to you most

Focusing on those expressions of culture as we talked about earlier without first identifying what’s important to you, is going at it backwards. First determine what your company’s purpose is, what you want to achieve, and what values and beliefs you’ll always live and uphold. These are essential linchpins for any great company culture, and those who are firmly committed to them are the ones who grow and scale successfully.

One client of mine failed to do this, and discovered that some of his new offices were conducting business in a way that he felt wasn’t in keeping with his ethics and values. They were using overly aggressive marketing techniques that didn’t ‘feel right’ to him, and undermined his commitment to professional integrity – all in the name of sales. Once he clearly identified what was important to him, he was able to look at every part of his business through a different lens, and make the necessary changes to align his values with his business practices.

3) Lead by example

Whether you demonstrate to your employees how much you value trust by trusting in them first, or how important taking vacation time is while you work through yours, your words and actions will ultimately set the tone for how your employees see you, and if they will follow. When it comes to culture, there cannot be a distinction between employer and employee, part-time or full-time, new person or industry veteran. Everyone, including yourself, contributes to it each and every day.

Many companies spend countless hours searching for an advantage of some kind that will set them apart from their competitors. However, it’s the smart business owner who knows that investing in a culture that’s based on shared values, meaningful work, and strong relationships, creates the most powerful and unique differentiator of all. And that’s the kind of culture everyone will fall in love with.

Written By: Glenn Nishimura

Glenn Nishimura is the Chief People Strategist at Nishimura Consulting, and a Futurpreneur mentor. He helps entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses across North America and Europe to build strong company cultures and smart people practices. Connect with him at 416.566.6892, or glenn@nishimuraconsulting.ca

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