A couple weeks back, a good friend asks me if he can take me to lunch to "pick my brain" about company culture. His business is growing very quickly, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain his unique company culture with all of the new talent. It's amazing how often this problem pops up in rapidly growing businesses. Any thoughtful leader of a growing company has spent sleepless nights considering this question: how do I keep the culture that made my small company special as it evolves into a larger company?
Big Gestures Lead to Small Results
The instinctive answer is to focus on big gestures that are highly visible to the whole company. On its surface, this approach makes sense. Personalized one-on-one interactions become untenable in larger organizations, but big gestures allow you to reach everyone at once. Maybe it's a bold new strategic initiative, a huge redesign of the office space, or an unforgettable company retreat. The problem is that these big gestures demonstrate a core misunderstanding of what company culture is and how it affects the day-to-day decisions of employees.
One Company, Two Cultures
Within every company, there are two cultures. One culture is aspirational -- the inspiring core values you plaster on your wall and proclaim on your company website. The second culture is the one your employees and customers actually experience every day. How many companies proudly extol their commitment to integrity while coaching their salespeople to exaggerate product advantages? How many companies proclaim a "customer comes first" mentality while complaining daily about their customers' unreasonable expectations? Companies with strong company culture focus not on big gestures that remind people of the aspirational culture, but on daily reinforcements that close the gap between the aspirational culture and the real culture.
Close the Gap One Sense at a Time
When your company is experiencing a large gap between aspirational and real culture, the biggest message you can send is that the smallest details really matter. As an example, in our company, we have three core values -- improve, impress, enjoy. Yes, we plaster that on the wall (literally), and yes, we proclaim that on our website. We also spend hours considering what music should be playing in the background of an office that truly exhibits those values. Ultimately, we decided on music released in the last year (improve) that is critically acclaimed (impress) and upbeat (enjoy). We are currently evaluating every single food item in our company's breakroom to ensure that we are only purchasing items that are healthy (improve), beautifully packaged (impress), and delicious (enjoy).
Bottom line: Company culture is a sensory experience that works best when it is reinforced through all five senses all day long. When you commit to making your employees see, hear, smell, taste, and feel your company's values, the big stuff takes care of itself.