It is no secret to many successful business owners how critical culture is to the long-term success of your company. Short-term success can simply be had by riding the latest wave or trend, but more often than not, to have long-term success requires creating a specific environment that will enable you to succeed.
Everything you do as an owner or a leadership team is enforcing your culture. Every conversation you have, every decision you make, every project you complete. It’s not a matter of whether or not something is impacting your culture, it’s just a matter of if those actions are acting in a positive or negative light.
This is not something I completely understood earlier in my career. Sure, I read all the books and blogs about culture, even would have told you how much I agreed, but I never really understand how important it was until we started Gulf Coast Solutions. Now, 7 successful years later, I am able to reflect on what really makes us unique and special, and why we have so much repeat and referral business.
Sure we create great software solutions and we have found a great niche in delivering solutions based on business, not technology, and I’m sure that has played a large part in our bottom line.
But I’ve learned that the fossils of success are not something that can be visible from the surface of P&L statements. You have to dig a bit to get to the good stuff and deep down, beneath the sand, lies a layer of culture that truly is the difference.
Unfortunately, culture has become a word synonymous with fancy coffee stations, ping-pong tables, and in-house massage tables. In reality, none of this crap makes a dime's worth of difference. Those same leaders who think a kegerator will help with the employee experience are the same ones who think that an extra $1/hr will increase employee loyalty.
It’s deeper than that, or it should be. For us, it is a driver, an enabler, a hidden ingredient to the pot of GCS gumbo. It’s our compass that keeps us pointed in the right direction. Its remnants can be found in our customer relationships, employee development, and even in the mundane day to day accounting activities.
The culture we create with our customers is really the driving force on why they return, and why they recommend us even to their direct competition. There are hundreds of enterprise software developers and integrators, many advertising cheaper rates, but it’s that special relationship we have, built on trust, that creates the culture to keep them loyal.
That customer culture is only possible with our true commitment to fostering the best employee environment we can. In a service-based company, you are only as good as your people and no matter what you do, those people will become the culture that your customers, vendors, and business partners see.
So, how do you create (or fix) your culture? It’s actually easier than you think.
First, focus on your employees' success and growth. If there is one thing I’ve learned in the last decade-plus of leading teams and companies, is that any effort you spend in making sure your employees thrive is worth it. This goes further than adding a ping-pong table or free beer in the fridge, it means doing things like
- Putting this in positions to succeed. If there is one thing you take away from this article, this should be it. Putting the right people in the right seats is not only smart for your culture, but it’s also smart for your bottom line. If you have someone in a place that they are not able to succeed in, you shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t deliver.
- Find ways for them to grow outside of formal training. At GC S, we created a special booking series to enable broader learning across our entire team. Not only does it help each of us learn, but it creates a dialogue amongst the team in other areas other than the day-to-day.
- Be inclusive with them in areas that they are not normally part of. You would be surprised how many people have great input in areas that are completely outside their normal job duties. Embrace that. The collective experiences of your team will always be greater than yours alone.
Second, make an intentional effort to talk about your culture with your customers. This article won’t try to get into the marketing or social media posting (I’m not qualified for such advice) but just like being successful in creativity and life, you can’t just wish culture to be, you have to intentionally design it into success.
- Be authentic. Customers now have more options than ever before and authenticity is what will separate yourself. After all, there is no better way to create a great culture with your customers than to simply be yourself.
- Ask for feedback. It is not a sign of weakness to ask your customers for feedback. Be open and honest about what you are trying to build and let them tell you how they feel you are doing.
- Listen more, talk less. Asking for feedback is only useful if you really listen to what they are saying. This goes far beyond just the words they are saying, it includes the decisions they are making (or not making), the problems they are having, and the off-topic things that bring a smile to their face. Remember, at the end of every transaction, a human being exists. M
Finally, take time to reflect often and think long term. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it can be hard to really evaluate your actions and the impact they are having. Even if you do have the time, I’m often reminded of a quote
“ We are very good lawyers for our own mistakes, and very good judges for the mistakes of others” — Author unknown
Quick tips I’ve learned to help me stay on the right track.
- Read, a lot. I find reading to be the best way to get other viewpoints to challenge your own, which can both alter your thinking or help you reinforce your beliefs.
- Remember it’s an ongoing journey. Culture is like a battery and everything you do either adds to it or takes away. However, this also means that one small mistake isn’t the end of the world. Continue to tend the garden for long term results.
- Tell others outside of your business. Personal accountability is a hidden secret of many successful people. There is something about saying things out loud that helps people achieve their goals. Tell your spouse, kids, neighbors about the type of company you are trying to create. Write about it. The more you hear it in your voice, the more you will work to achieve it. In fact, you can often see me explaining to myself why we do what we do during a long commute. I want to hear me say the words.
Culture is not something that can be created unless it’s authentic, with follow-through. It must be present when things are going bad just as often as when they are going good. It’s even okay that it can’t be explained easily on a mission statement because many times those are boilerplate anyways.
Our culture at GCS is hard to put into words but it’s there.
It pulls us just as we push it.
It’s the reason we are where we are today, and it will be the deciding factor on where we go from here.