How I Failed To Develop My Company’s Culture (And How I’m Fixing My Mistake)
There are many mistakes that you can (and likely will) make as an entrepreneur or leader, but the good news is that most can be fixed. Perhaps you’ve designed a product that doesn’t fit the needs of the market, or you’ve guided your team towards the wrong distribution channel. These mistakes aren’t the end of the world. You can always pick yourself up, fix what went wrong, and keep moving forward with minimal long-term damage. However, there is one mistake that isn’t easily fixed: neglecting your company’s culture. The culture that you develop sets the tone for every interaction and decision in your company. If your company’s culture isn’t nurtured and starts to go sideways, the long-term impact can be devastating.
I’ll be the first to admit that my company, BodeTree, has struggled when it comes to culture. It’s not to say that our team doesn’t like what they do. After all, we’re enjoying strong growth and making a difference for small business owners across the country. However, I think my team would be hard pressed to articulate the essence of BodeTree’s culture and describe its impact on what we do. The inability to define our team’s culture is itself a failure that can be traced directly back to me. Whether I’d like to admit it or not, it’s the leader who defines the culture and sets the tone for the entire organization. Now over the past year, I’ve come to realize my failings and committed to focus on culture and cultivate it at every level of the organization. Fixing my mistakes in this area isn’t easy, but I’m making progress. Here are the three major lessons I’ve learned so far.
You’re never too small to worry about culture.
For the first year and a half of our existence, BodeTree consisted primarily of my co-founder Matt and myself. Matt and I had a lot in common and worked together for several years before starting BodeTree, so the topic of our corporate culture rarely came up. After all, we got along just fine and were so busy building our product that abstract things like culture seemed unimportant. We never defined our company’s ethos and pushed off conversations about our identity until we had a larger team. However, even as our team started to grow culture continued to take a back seat to more pressing matters.
In retrospect, I should have started with a strong focus on the culture that we wanted to foster at the company from day one. Hoping that our culture would grow organically was a mistake. For us, it simply never manifested itself the way we wanted. There was no magic moment where everything came together, and we collectively realized why we all wanted to dedicate ourselves to building this company. I’ve since realized that culture has to be defined, guided, and nurtured from the very beginning to take root.
Remember that the little things matter.
Culture is defined and reinforced by how your team handles the little challenges and decisions they face day in and day out. Put another way, small and seemingly innocuous things can have an oversized impact on an organization. For example, we pride ourselves on being a transparent organization when it comes to major decisions. Whether we’re making changes to our product, shifting our distribution strategy or looking to expand the team, we make sure that everyone knows what’s going on and why. However, there have been incidents in the past where our innocent actions are perceived as being secretive or opaque. Sometimes it’s closed-door meetings or hushed phone calls. Other times, it’s the use of private chat rather than group channels in our Slack account. While each instance can be easily explained away and is more often than not perfectly justified, the overall perception of such actions hurts the organization.
Old habits are hard to break, and I’m the worst offender when it comes to neglecting the small things. I still am far more inclined to send a private message to a member of the team rather than post it in a group chat. I’m also the type to instinctively close my door whenever I get a phone call. Still, I’m trying to change my behavior and lead by example. I realize that perception and the negative impact of these actions can build up over time and lead to a culture of distrust.
Originally published at www.forbes.com on June 8, 2015.