Entrepreneur Advice: How to Establish a Positive Company Culture


HollyHowardDear Holly,

I’ve been reading a lot about company culture and trying to make some changes within my business.  I have a small staff of about three at my web-based bakery.  When I started my business, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as culture or that I was responsible for setting and maintaining it.  My business is about two years old and just in the last six months have I really been focused on improving the culture because I felt morale was low and people weren’t really working well together.  

But, I have to admit I’m confused.  I’m not really sure if I’m approaching this in the best way.  I’m doing things like creating a weekly company happy hour and trying to make the place more fun, but I’m not sure if it’s getting me the results I need.  I thought that the weekly happy hour would help bring people together, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much for morale or productivity.

Do you have any advice on how I can move forward and create the culture I really want?  Do I need to buy a ping pong table just to make my employees feel like this is a great place to work?  What’s really the key to building a great culture?


Culture Clash

Dear Clash,

Believe me, you’re not the only one who confuses table games for a good company culture.  I’ve seen a lot of misguided attempts to build culture through ping-pong tables, events built around alcohol consumption and an overall casual environment.  But, don’t be fooled, these things have very little to do with company culture.  In fact, often times, owners put these practices into place thinking they will boost morale, but they actually become detrimental to the business.

I’m glad that you’ve recognized the importance of defining your culture because the biggest problem I see is that owners say that they don’t have one.  Don’t fool yourself, a company culture exists whether you’ve defined it or not.  If you haven’t taken the time to clearly think about what you want, I’m sure you’ve unknowingly created an environment that isn’t beneficial to your company.  I see this all the time.

Let’s get clear on what company culture is in the first place.  When we talk about culture, we are talking about the environment you create within your business and the tone you set for your company.  It’s the environment piece that gets people tripped up thinking they have to provide scooters or table tennis for their employees in order to have a “good” environment.  But that’s not necessarily the point.  

Culture is really defined by two things within your business: your values and your purpose.  Your values are the guiding principles that define how your company operates and your purpose is really like your mission and vision all rolled up into one succinct objective.   So if you don’t know your values or your purpose and you’ve just thrown a ping-pong table in the lobby hoping for change, it’s not going to happen.  

Here’s what you can do to improve your current culture and create the environment that actually benefits your business.

First, define your values and your purpose.  This is often incredibly challenging for business owners because it forces them to dig deep and understand what their business is truly about.  It’s not just about your baked goods; there’s a much bigger reason that your company exists.

You may want to do more research on what values and purpose are before you dive into this.  I recommend books like Patrick Lencioni’s, The Advantage, or Clayton Christensen’s, How Will You Measure Your Life.  If it’s in your budget, take a business development course and have someone help you work through this.  Business guru Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” this means that the environment in which your business operates is far more important in determining the success than any strategy you put in place.

Once you’ve defined your culture, then you can decide how to create the right environment based on your purpose and values. Remember, culture is more how you behave than actually what you do.  So don’t think you need to go out and put extreme practices into place.  You just need to be consistent with your actions and the way you operate.  Employees are more motivated by a leader whose performance is based on the decent values he follows in applying a consistent strategy in pursuit of his vision for the business.

Good luck!  Changing company culture is often a slow and lengthy process.  Don’t think that everything will switch within a month.  Invest in this now and your company will benefit well into the future!

Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books.

Want valuable insights into how to grow your business? Email Holly to set up a time to talk athhoward@askhollyhow.com or to ask a question for the next Ask Holly How. Join the wait list for her next business development program here.

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