In the long run, businesses or organizations that don’t have strong cultures often deteriorate.
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As Henry Ford once said, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”
Growing up in northwest Missouri, our local high school football team — and the athletics program as a whole — was a bit of a laughingstock. However, as I entered high school, a new group of athletic coaches took over and implemented new tenets that allowed their players to be successful.
Values and expectations were made clear. Everyone understood what it meant to be part of an organization. The coaches emphasized personal responsibilities, trust and the overarching idea of putting the team first. Self-policing among teammates occurred more regularly, and some of the most empowering moments of personal growth actually occurred without coaches present.
Almost immediately, all the sports teams — and school life in general — improved, and within a few years, the sports programs were some of the most successful in the country.
I know it is a bit cliché, but those experiences made it clear how culture informs success.
I’ve seen the same thing again and again, especially as I started my business career. Those who prioritized the right values and built a culture around responsibility and teamwork achieved greatness. Those who were bad contributors — inside and outside of the office — could win by certain vanity metrics, but in the long run, businesses or organizations that didn’t have strong cultures often deteriorated because there was no emphasis on cohesion, trust and an objective greater than any single individual.
What is a sustainable culture?
As I’ve founded and led companies, a winning culture has always been the foundation upon which both sustainable growth and success are built.
The tenets we promote in our current company are not dissimilar to the ones preached by my high school wrestling and football coaches; they are universal, and can transform, steady or maintain a business that abides by them.
Culture needs to be grounded in key values. For us, that means being curious, brave (as empowerment comes through bravery) and exceptional.
The cross-company shared values that helped establish our standards and protocols also make sure that our culture is being enforced. Everyone has peer-to-peer feedback, bottom-up and top-down feedback that we take very seriously. Both help us find outliers who we may not have discovered in our hiring or onboarding that don’t fit within our culture. It isn’t that we think someone might be a bad person, but our company and our team members have become so attuned with our culture that they can quickly identify someone who simply doesn’t fit. We want everyone to find the right place and culture for them and we recognize that we aren’t building the organization for all.
Although we have a culture similar to Zappos, there is a similarity between the key tenets we emphasize and Zappos’ legendary “Core Values.” The benefit for the company comes when there are clear, actionable beliefs that everyone understands and applies daily.
Understand the difference between culture and customs.
For us, these shared values are reinforced every day and they are part of the trust that underlies a successful culture. Oftentimes, I think companies get confused between culture and customs.
There are a lot of culture conversations that are focused on the foosball table, work hours or dress code. This is where people too often get confused with the custom versus the culture. Customs are fad-like. When you focus on customs in a business as opposed to the core values — the actual company culture — it has the potential for creating misalignment of priorities or a disconnect in the core cultural tenants.
When you are clear on your values, that is how you create a winning culture. You don’t need a culture committee to get together and talk about what cool thing the company should do next. All you need is a culture based on shared values.
I don’t know if I’ve ever been cool; in fact, I’m quite certain at many times I’ve been anything but. However, as an individual I’ve always tried to operate under the value tenets that I believe matter most.
It is the same from an organizational perspective: I’ve never heard an employee describe us as cool; however, I hear my colleagues using the term “empowered” a great deal to describe their work environment. They trust each other. They each feel they have the cover to go make a mistake, push a topic or challenge a status quo. Because they share the same values and expectations, they fundamentally understand one another, and they interact with ease among one another. Ultimately, they deeply respect one another.
When you share beliefs and attitudes and act accordingly, you create a place that may or may not be cool, but is definitely impassioned. This is the difference between culture and customs where culture conversations focus on ping-pong and an array of cold brew coffees and draft beers, culture focuses on values, core beliefs and expectations.
I couldn’t care less what you wear to work — it’s so irrelevant that a new study shows that casual attire has gone so far, it is now more productive and creative to wear formal clothes. I can’t keep up with that. What I do care about is that when I’m sitting in a room with my peers or colleagues, they all feel like their opinions are as meaningful and material as anyone else’s opinion or perspective.
Build your culture purposefully.
It isn’t all intangible — we have actual infrastructure that supports our culture. We coordinate and communicate. We understand how to work smart and prioritize our time. Our culture is built on trust, and we emphasize quarterly planning and results.
Our expectation is not that you are a superhero; in fact, quite the contrary. Our expectation is for you to be a good team contributor that understands your role to play and how your part benefits us all achieving collective successes. Team before self! We don’t have time or tolerance for folks who are going to put themselves above the team or think they are going to put on a cape and save us all. Please don’t!
We think winning matters, we think efficiency matters, we think getting feedback from customers and each other matters. These are the things that help us grow and get better.
Many of my teammates from when I was a kid are still great friends of mine. I like to think it is the shared experiences working together with shared values and seeing the successful outcomes of our efforts that binds us. I also have a great deal of long-term relationships that run very deep with my work colleagues, friends and those who have worked in the companies I’ve had an opportunity to be a part of. And yes, I believe the winning cultures we have built and continue to build in business are the reason we have remained close for so long.
As we progressed together and found wins — as individual or as organizations — we built trust, camaraderie and appreciation. I’ll take those cultural victories any day.