7 Elements of a Healthy and Vibrant Business Culture

Small business owners rarely have time to think about culture, but it's worth it to consider what creates a healthy one.
Founder, Duct Tape Marketing Consultant, LLC
March 22, 2012

The idea of business culture is a hot topic these days, but the actual concept of culture can be tough to pinpoint or define. However, like so many things that are hard to describe, you know it when you see it.

Many small businesses don’t give the idea of culture much thought, particularly early on, but every business has a culture. It may be strong or weak, positive or negative, or just plain hard to spot, but it’s like a form of internal brand in a way. It’s the collective impression, habits, language, style, communication and practices of the organization.

healthy and vibrant culture is what attracts and keeps people that are committed to what a business stands for and it’s what ultimately attracts and keeps customers and fosters a strong external community.

My belief is that a healthy culture is a shared culture, one created through shared stories, beliefs, purpose, plans, language, outcomes and ownership. These aren’t little things; these aren’t things that you get right during an annual retreat. These are things molded over time with trust and passion and caring. These are things that evolve because you work very hard at finding them, holding them and making them important.

The following seven elements make up the foundation of a healthy business culture.

1. Archived stories

The first step is to begin to develop, archive, curate and tell stories that illustrate what your business stands for. Stories that share why you do what you do, who you it for, why you’re passionate about it, and where the business is headed.

Throughout time, great leaders have used stories to inspire commitment and attract community. The central elements of a strong culture are the stories that employees tell themselves and each other. The 'why you would want to work here' story, the orientation story, the 'here’s how we deal with challenges' story, the 'here’s where we are headed' story.

These illustrations are like oral traditions that allow culture to sustain, thrive and grow, and it’s the job of the leader of the business to make story-building an intentional act.

2. Active beliefs

People want to work for more than a paycheck. Sure, they want to be paid fairly and in some cases the element of salary will be an important aspect of their decision to come to work for an organization, but perhaps more importantly, people want to work on something they believe in and they want to do that work with people who share their passion and beliefs.

This isn’t the same thing as saying that everyone in your organization has to maintain the same beliefs. However, by creating a set of core beliefs that everyone in the organization lives by and supports, you create a set of filters for how decisions are made, how people treat each other, how they treat customers, what’s expected, how to manage and even how to write a sales letter.

3. Demonstrated purpose

In order to bring purpose into the organization you must determine a way to bring it to life and reinforce in every decision the organization makes.

This may take the form of an employee development program, foundation support, benefit package or community program. The key is to bring purpose to life by example. Your actions, or how you treat your staff, will speak far louder about purpose than any page in an employee manual. In order to create a shared purpose the staff must be your first customer.

4. Clear objectives

The strongest, most productive cultures come to life when people know what to do and how to do it—in places where they are trusted to do good work and use their creativity to solve problems.

If you want to grow your organization to the point where it can serve a higher purpose, you’ll need to develop a system that enables people to manage themselves. The key lies in systematic planning, thinking, clear accountability and consistent communication.

5. Mentored leadership

While stories are an important way to attract and inspire people to join you on your journey, they can only take you as far as the leaders you develop.

After payroll is made and your business is generating sufficient cash flow, I believe that the leader’s primary role should shift to developing leaders internally. In fact, as the owner of a business you’ll never succeed in reaching beyond where you are today until you are no longer the person that brings in the most work.

Teaching others to land the big fish, to tell stories, to create shared beliefs, to inspire and attract commitment means you have to invest time and resources in this very thing in a very intentional way.

6. Measured accountability

One of the strongest ways to foster commitment is to get people to commit to a stake in the outcome of their work. The only way I know to do this is to establish benchmarks, goals and indicators and then report and communicate progress religiously. You must create reporting mechanisms that truly measure the most important components of your business. This will include key financial elements, but must strive to go far into measuring success around shared beliefs and culture.

7. Real ownership

The ultimate measure of commitment is achieved when people that work for your organization come to understand that they play a crucial role in creating the kind of company they want to work for—that the company is actually their most important product.

This won’t happen until you help employees free themselves from the typical job descriptions and organizational charts so they can begin to manage themselves. It won’t happen unless they are excited about the journey they are on. It won’t happen until they fully understand how a dollar spent on a new desk equates to profit margin. It won’t happen until they start thinking like an owner when it comes to meeting a customer’s needs. It won’t happen until everyone realizes they can help develop new business, build the community, create innovation, fix problems, right wrongs and make decisions that impact the organization on their own.

Photo credit: Flickr/kaw1216

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.