In the same way supportive environments foster growth and excellence among co-workers, toxic ones promote lethargy and mediocrity. I can probably guess which you’d like to cultivate in your company, but the path to creating a constructive company culture isn’t always linear, and it’s one of the highest hurdles you’ll come across as an entrepreneur.
My founders and I have seen successes and have learned a lot from past failures in this arena. A couple of years ago, I worked at a small company where most team members worked remotely. At one point, the five of us were separated by three time zones. Not surprisingly, establishing a supportive company culture proved challenging. My co-founder and I tried quick fix after quick fix. But the problem with short-term fixes is that, well, they only work in the short-term.
We were only able to start turning the company culture around once we found the root of the problem: scattered and incomplete communication. Even among recent hires, communication primarily took place over email and chat. Phone calls? Forget about it. So we implemented a phone-first policy, which boosted feelings of trust and skyrocketed our overall culture. If a message consisted of more than a couple sentences, our company mantra was this: Pick up the phone!
Establishing a supportive company culture is a struggle most startup leaders know all too well. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to cultivating an awesome culture, here are a few lessons I’ve learned along my own entrepreneurial journey:
1. You can’t force a positive culture, but you can cultivate one
To achieve full buy-in from all levels of your company, it’s important you not only create an environment that aligns with the company’s values and mission, but you also promote a positive environment where team members know their ideas are welcome. I do this at my current company by conveying my gratitude during weekly companywide meetings, holding weekly pre-work coffees, and planning an annual paintballing trip.
2. Like all good things, culture takes time
Your ideal culture won’t happen overnight, but the long-term ROI of a company environment in which each team member is engaged is definitely worth your time. According to Gallup, companies that provide high levels of engagement to their employees have 22 percent higher productivity.
3. You don’t have to go it alone
Others have started companies before and are more than happy to lead you in the right direction. Seek out mentors at other startups who have grown their companies from the ground up. Ask them for specific best practices you can adopt in your own company.
4. Track culture changes over time
Pay attention to the evolution of your company culture. Watch out for any assignment of blame, which may indicate toxic cultural elements. If you notice team engagement, it means positive culture is being cultivated. Consider recording each colleague’s trends and energy, as small changes can be hard to discern in real time. Doing this daily can not only do volumes for your ability to track your goals, but it can also help you reward engaged team members who routinely volunteer their ideas, critiques, and recommendations for improvement.
5. Burnout is not a badge of honor
Young teams often run the startup marathon like it’s the 100-meter dash. Red Bull, late nights, and weekends? Sure. But keep in mind that young teams (and CEOs) can fall prey to the notion that hard work is the ultimate means to a successful end. This mentality also manifests in the culture: No company (startups included) will succeed in creating a positive environment if burnout is put on a pedestal.
6. Test, measure, improve, repeat
Asking for help and implementing new policies is only half the battle. Set specific, measurable goals, and be honest about how well they worked. It’s OK to mess up — often you’ll learn the most from your failures. What isn’t OK is leaving your goals to chance. Try to make them work, and when they don’t, modify and try again.
While this advice is meant to give you a head start in establishing company culture, keep in mind that each company is different. From age to location to work setup, every company has its own needs. If you are patient, these steps will have you well on your way to establishing a healthy and engaging company culture.