8 easy ways to start build a thriving culture NOW to accelerate your business

Not When — it’s NOW!

It’s never too early to start building culture. Start-ups say to me that they are too busy; but the time to start is right at the beginning of your journey.

Creating the right rituals and routines early on means they become more pervasive with every staff member you hire — they can inspire productivity and stability (ultimately building loyalty) in your employees, which is extremely good for building a thriving business.

But building irrelevant values — or waiting too long to start — can hold you back for years. Extra challenges come when you try to maintain a great culture in a fast-growing company, or change a culture that already exists to get higher performance. Employees may struggle to adopt a new way of thinking, either because it’s unrealistic, meaningless or seen as a distraction.

In this article, I’ll tell you how I’ve built successful and meaningful cultures in teams of two people to 400 people; the lessons learned are universally applicable, whether you’re a start up or multinational.

1. Live your values every day

When you have culture that lives and breathes naturally every day — when your values become part of the actions you take and the way you make decisions — you will have arrived at something truly meaningful and of long-term value to your business. The trick is to communicate this to your employees so that they will base all their decisions on your values, too.

For example, I stopped working for Mars over 15 years ago, but I still remember their values of quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom. They were both easy to remember and to apply to my own work because the senior team always explained every decision with reference to these values.

This is key. If the CEO or senior management does not lead by example, then a company’s culture becomes shallow and meaningless. Then, when culture is ignored completely (or not authentically lived), it will be very difficult to get back or even get going in the first place.

But establishing a set of behaviours, making them stick, making them part of everyday culture (so people naturally think about them everyday) requires dedication and huge effort.

Just remember that, wherever you sit in an organisation, the culture starts with you.

2. Make your office space way better — it is possible!

Encouraging your employees to be loyal ambassadors for your brand starts with their workspace. The best environments I’ve either worked in or built have been functional, unique and (dare I say it) a little bit fun. I’m not suggesting that sleep pods and indoor slides are for everyone, but who wants to work in a grey box for 60 hours a week?

From my experience, an effective working environment needs three things:

  • Space for chilling out: Leaving room for people to go to take a breather is common sense, since employees who take breaks are more focused, productive and mindful of their objectives. As employers we should be encouraging people to take breaks — both for the health of our employees and the success of our businesses — and providing inviting spaces for them to rest in is a great start.
  • Space for collaboration: Encourage more inspired discussions by making small changes to your meeting rooms; paint one wall in your brand colour, turn it into a whiteboard, or decorate with keywords from your brand values. There are loads of ideas on Pinterest.
  • Space for privacy: Open-plan offices might be great for transparency and collaboration, but the need for discretion (whether about your employees’ private lives or your company’s finances) dictates the need for some sound-proof space, too. Where possible, provide space for HR/finance meetings and phone calls that will be open to everyone.

3. After 50 people, do it differently

The most fun time being part of or running a team is when it’s at 25 people, because at this point you know everyone really well and it’s like a family.

Branson says that you can’t make an office work past 50 people (all working face-to-face), which I think is true. But with a team of more than 50, you have to rely on others to spread the work; as any entrepreneur knows, it can be hard to let go and let others take the main communication role.

A large company is made up of lots of small teams united by a belief system. This is the change in thinking that needs to happen to create something meaningful — encouraging cultures to fit each team rather than one-size-fits-all.

Communicate values in creative ways, both practically and conspicuously. Can you be creative about it and not too “corporate” and boring? Imagination and informality in how you communicate your values makes them memorable, human and applicable to everyday decisions, but madness lies in buzzwords like “employee engagement” that are applied across whole organisations. Think about ways to make your values every day — what kind of (light!) systems can you put in place?

4. Remove the bad apples FAST!

Cut out your bad apples. If they’re a poor performer and don’t follow values, then this will be an easy decision. If they are a good performer (say, a top sales guy) but don’t follow the values then it’s harder. But if you are committed to being true to your values, it should not be a hard choice — the individual has to go.

Jodi Glickman, author and founder of communication consulting firm Great on the Job, agrees. Glickman told the Harvard Business Review: “When the bad outweighs the good and when the employee is causing more problems than he or she is solving, it’s time for that employee to go.”

Of course, termination of contract should be the last step in a fair and transparent process. Even the bad apples should be treated in the right way; it’s less stressful for you, it demonstrates integrity to your other employees and (importantly) covers you legally.

A reputable HR consultant is critical in getting to this point, but the following articles are a good start in preparing you:

You should also check the legal requirements for dismissing employees in your area; for the UK they are outlined on Gov.uk here. But remember that everyone is an individual; it’s likely that they are a great person (you hired them, remember) but just not a good fit for your organisation and/or the job.

So when you do have to let people go, do it humanely — let people keep their honour. Keeping your cool will be the best course for you, your employees and your business.

5. Small things make a big difference

Promoting your culture doesn’t have to be all about grand gestures; small things can make a massive difference to how your employees perceive your workplace and their place within it. And when you start thinking of this as mini-actions, then promoting your culture doesn’t have to be expensive or space-hungry.

For example, if you don’t have space for a dedicated staff room, you could allocate a couple of hours of a meeting room schedule for lunch breaks. Or a few spare books from home are all you need to start a book swap. CEO’s of growing startups could consider how healthy the snacks provided in vending machines are, and whether there are options for all dietary requirements. Making small, positive changes to things like this can mean employees feel more involved and “at home”.

Use your imagination and your employees will thank you for it. Remember how Amazon used old doors as desks? Here are a few starting points to inspire you:

  • When you’re looking for inspiration, you can’t get much better than Pinterest and a quick search for creative office space ideas.
  • Take heed from the companies in this Mashable gallery; they’ve all taken inspiration from their brand’s personality; compare Etsy’s craft-inspired space with AirBnB’s choice to model their meeting rooms on their most stylish rental homes.
  • Read Belle Beth Cooper’s fascinating Fast Company article on The Science Behind Your Ideal Work Environment to find out which temperature, lighting and noise levels are best for inspiring creativity.

6. Flexibility + trust = productivity

People are more likely to be flexible and trusting if they are given flexibility and trust in return, especially when it comes to when, where and for how long they work. The easiest way to encourage these valuable qualities is to treat them as adults; to trust them to do their best work in ways that suit them, as much as the business model allows. No one ever says “Man, I wish my boss would micro-manage me a bit more.”

For example, the term ‘work/life balance’ is overused in the extreme, but it’s still absolutely crucial that culture respects everyone’s personal priorities. The reason that multinationals such as Google or Facebook have such loyal workforces has less to do with bean bags and much more to do with how they help their employees work around family commitments and a fruitful personal life.

And remember, this applies to those with children and those without. It’s easy to assume that, just because someone isn’t married or doesn’t have a young family, their balance will be tipped in favour of work over life. Similarly, an employee (male or female) who’s just had a baby won’t necessarily want to hit the brakes on their way up the career ladder. It’s all about individuality and choice — don’t turn off an engaged employee by assuming you know what they want for their future. Give them the options to make these choices for themselves.

For an in-depth discussion around this topic, every employer or manager should read Sheryl Sandberg’s excellent Lean In.

7. Create shocking new rules

Shocking rules have three key benefits: they mark you out as an innovative employer, make people remember you AND mean that your employees are more likely to remember the things that are important to you.

For example, Ben Horowitz talks about how swearing was allowed at Loudcloud/Opsware. Other ideas you hear about today are ones like scrapping annual reviews and replacing with 90 day plans. What shocking new rules can you create that resonate with your company’s personality?

Tailor the amount of “shock” to your business — taking the above example, it won’t always be appropriate to create an environment where swearing is valued or even permitted, especially when dealing with external clients who have more traditional values. The important thing is that you are memorable.

Think thoroughly about the kind of situations that the new rules will be used in — for example, should you allow the same rules on marketing and social media? Who could be put off by your new rules and do you want their business/contacts? Does your new rule conflict with your business’s personality?

If not, then there shouldn’t be a problem, especially if the benefits of a shocking new rule will outweigh the drawbacks. Similarly, some of these questions might be easier than others to answer, and some of the risks are easier to see for some businesses. But, as a leader, you have a duty to consider all of the possible outcomes and come to a decision on balance.

8. Hire awesome people

Promoting from within remains key, but don’t forget the role of new ideas and approaches that outside leadership can bring. Remember though, they have to be A-players (superstars with really great track records) — hire people who are better than you!

There is nothing more dangerous than hiring just average or good leaders as they will be a brake on your progress. So take in people from outside, embrace their ideas, but make sure they are superstars.

Having said that, this strategy comes with an educated risk — as you hire more people with new ideas, you can quickly forget what made you great in the first place. Understand why your superstar employees love you, and what has made you great. What has led the successes you have today? Keep those core values in mind if they’re working and use new talent to build on them.

9. [BONUS ;-) ] Promote constructive honesty (especially towards you)

As CEO, you have a duty to encourage the giving and receiving of honest opinion. As Amy Gallo argues in a post for Harvard Business Review,

“Without input, your development will suffer, you may become isolated, and you’re likely to miss out on hearing some great ideas.”

Creating an atmosphere in which team members at all levels feel free to give (and open to receive) honest opinion is a complex and sometimes controversial topic. But it’s so crucial to your business that it deserves our undivided attention. Here, in one of my posts, I’ll tell you how to create (and manage) a new era of constructive criticism in your own team. It’s a key building block for all 8 of the above.

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Thankyou for reading… I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find it!


Nic Newman