Today’s start-up environment is not for the fainthearted. It requires long hours, lightning-fast decisions, the ability to endure many failures for each success, and like-minded people who not only thrive in that environment but also embrace the organization’s mission.
Yet, in the race to launch the product or service, many startups overlook an essential ingredient: creating a distinct corporate culture.
Too often, corporate culture is considered secondary, an afterthought, or something that’s allowed to develop without much direction from senior management. Instead, start-ups should develop a corporate mission, values, shared goals, objectives and traditions early so they are part of the company’s DNA.
Developing a successful, ethical corporate culture isn’t the same or as easy as developing an employee handbook. A handbook created by HR to share essential corporate policies and employee guidelines may include a mission statement but does not necessarily create or support a company culture, nor even articulate core values. Most handbooks are distributed on an employee’s first day and filed away afterward, untouched. Core values may be posted on a sign in the break room, but that’s not usually enough.
To succeed, a leadership team should approach corporate culture as seriously as it does its product or service road map. The company should work to ensure a sense of community around key values. It needs to help team members feel respected, valued and motivated to put in hard work.
In my experience, this all begins not with a mere handbook but with developing a playbook (shaping and developing core values and putting them into action) that defines the company, outlines how team members should behave and acts as a lightning rod for outstanding talent and achievement.
Yet, before a company can communicate its corporate values, its leaders need to fully understand what they are. They need to decide what kind of a company they want the world to see, what inspired its founding in the first place and what kind of change they want to make. They need to quite literally spell out each of their corporate values and how they can achieve them.
This process is actually about defining the essence of the company, which you can share in the corporate playbook. Key elements of this playbook, which transforms a handbook of policies into a blueprint for success, should accomplish the following:
1. Identify the qualities you want to see in employees. Management needs to determine what inherent qualities and skillsets its employees should bring and what it needs to attract those employees. At my company, we want people who are passionate about what they do. So during the interview process, we ask each candidate to identify their top three value words from our value wheel, which is the heart of the playbook. We explain that there is no right or wrong answer. We actually look to their reactions and can tell when someone is lip-syncing or demonstrating real passion when discussing what values are important to them, and that helps us figure out if they will fit in.
2. Articulate the expectations. While the intangible elements that become corporate culture are often best articulated by actions instead of words, it’s still important to clearly articulate core company values, vision, and beliefs for two reasons: first, to weed out those who don’t belong, and second, to make sure every employee understands what’s expected of them and how those expectations relate to the bigger picture.
Leaders need to ensure that all employees have read and internalized the playbook, in addition to the corporate goals and objectives. Each employee’s own goals and objectives should also align with the corporate objectives, which means you need to engage with your employees. This takes time but can improve employees’ motivation because they have purpose and understand how their work contributes to the overall deliverable — and toward something that is significant to them. Most companies stop after they develop their corporate vision and mission — the playbook is the missing piece.
3. Accept different needs and unify through common goals. Company leaders need to create and maintain an environment where each employee feels excited, challenged and rewarded as part of the team, even for solo contributors. More than ever, employers need to provide meaningful experiences. Again, the way to do this is to communicate the bigger picture. People feel empowered when they have purpose. Problems develop if employees don’t have a sense of purpose, if they don’t know why they’re there, and if they don’t feel valued. Provide regular updates on corporate milestones and objectives in formats that fit your culture and regularly follow up with each employee so they know how their piece fits into the big picture.
When a company is just starting out, you might think you don’t have the time or the resources to put together a playbook. And then, when you do, things are going well enough that you might think that you don’t need it. But, if you wait until after an expansion when you come back down the other side, it may be too late to catch up.
It’s important to start early to create a culture of like-minded people who not only thrive in that environment but also see it as much more than work. Having a playbook ultimately translates into shareholder value — and perhaps more importantly, a great place to work.
This is the first in a three-part series that will explore the four key considerations that go into building a culture of collaboration, like-minded determination and respect and how you can articulate and share them in the corporate playbook.