4 Ways Small Businesses Can Build a Great Culture

Think you're too busy to consider culture in your small business? Here's how to easily incorporate it into your routine.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant, AlexandraLevit.com
January 26, 2012

Most of the small business owners I know have never thought about their culture, or anything else that reminds them of working for the man. For some, the concept of an organizational culture sounds like something you have to have 1,000 cogs in the wheel to worry about, and they don’t have time, anyhow.

One of my entrepreneur-minded friends laughed out loud when I told him about this column.  “You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. “As if I don’t have enough to do with management, accounting, production, inventory, hiring and scheduling—now you’re suggesting I think about my culture?”

The thing is, if you’re a successful small-business owner, you probably have a strong culture already and won’t have to start from scratch. You can improve things exponentially with some minor tweaks to your approach.

As for that approach, small-business culture can’t be dictated via policy a la Fortune 500 company.  If you write down what you want your culture to be and try an official implementation exercise with your employees, they will look at you like you have three heads. In a small business, culture is encompassed by what you do on an everyday basis, not what you say once. So, here are four ideas to incorporate into your routine.

Be Consistent With Hiring

Every time you make a new hire, you should have a checklist of your ideal employee’s attributes in front of you. Although you may need a person with specific skills or experience, you should also consider whether he or she will contribute positively to your culture. For instance, if you have eight staff members who all possess can-do attitudes, a high-level of energy and a bent toward innovation, together they will create a rewarding culture.

Don’t Be Their Friend

At the end of the day, the owner or manager of a company is the boss and should behave as such. Stick to your policies on professional appearance and conduct, and don’t blur the lines when socializing. A collegial atmosphere is one thing, but work does not always have to be fun for employees; that’s why it’s called work. Close as you may be to your employees, you must still hold them accountable for independently managing their responsibilities and delivering great results.

Embrace a Team Mentality

Be receptive to your employees’ suggestions and consult them when preparing to make big decisions. Incentivize them to drive the business’s growth and reward them for developing niche areas of expertise. Keep the team on the same page with weekly get-togethers in which you communicate your big picture vision. Also, praise employees who are able to successfully resolve conflicts and who work harmoniously with one another.

Encourage Mutual Respect

Demonstrate for your employees the way you would like them to treat customers and each other by being courteous and considerate during stressful periods. Similarly, show that disrespectful comments or behavior will not be tolerated in your workplace. The best way to lead a team to a productive culture is by example!

What else do you do to build and sustain a positive culture?

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success.  Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian