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You want to know how I learned what company culture is? The hard way—by almost destroying ours. Let me take you back to early 2018.

Business was good, our growth trajectory continued to climb, and our staff had expanded to 76 people. Things were happening. We were cruising along without a care in the world, and then it happened. An unexpected loss of a client that comprised about 25 percent of our revenue.

We metaphorically slammed into a brick wall.

We were pretty broken, on life support for a bit, but we made it out alive. When this collision happened, I as the driver had to take responsibility. I needed to take a hard look at the fact that I didn’t even see the wall coming. Our company culture felt so strong when things were going well and we were sticking all of our landings. But when faced with a challenge of this magnitude, it became clear to me that it was more important than ever for our purpose and our values to ring true.

Problem was, what I thought was clarity around these things turned out to be confusion. Which turned into frustration. Which required heroic measures to keep us alive.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I can attest to that. If you can muster the humility to learn from the bad stuff, there’s a strange sense of calm and acceptance that comes from clawing back. Even though we had work to do around clarifying our purpose and values, the foundation of our company culture was strong enough to let us recover and to heal.

Here are four lessons I’ve learned about what company culture is through the good and bad times over the past 15 years of growing my business. I’ve tried to include as many takeaways as I can on how to improve company culture so you can apply these lessons right away.

4 Lessons That Taught Me What Company Culture Is

Lesson 1: Company Culture = Purpose, Vision, Values

Find your why.” How many times have you heard that lately? What does “find your why” even mean? Everyone seems to love them some Simon Sinek, but lately, it sort of feels like “company culture” is the new “kaizen” in business. It can feel inauthentic to even bring it up.

But here’s the thing. You can call it whatever you want to, but you cannot pretend the need to focus on your company’s culture or “why” will go away. It is not a passing trend. If you fail to pause early and often to define, refine, and clarify why you started your business, why you lead your teams, or why you show up for work every day, it will be impossible for you to have sustainable success.

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Yep, sorry to put it all on you, but it is true what they say. Company culture starts with your leadership, with the person or people who got the ball rolling on your business idea in the first place. Their motivations and how they choose to show up, every single day, defines the personality of the business. Your purpose, your vision, and your values. This is where you start.

So own it. Define it. Share it. Protect it. Every single day.

Lesson 2: Always Be Listening …

To protect your culture, you need to keep an accurate pulse on it. Which means it’s important to have a few listening tools in place that keep your leadership team informed, aligned, and focusing on the truth of your organization. Making assumptions about what people are thinking and feeling through subjective conversations and water cooler gossip results in destructive business decisions and erodes trust.

So what listening tools do you need? Employee engagement surveys, a performance assessment process that asks your employees for feedback, weekly 1-on-1 conversations, all-company meetings with open Q&A time … these are just a few examples of the tools you can use to listen for the truth about your company.

Lesson 3: Clarity Is Key

Of all the company culture quotes I’ve read, Marcus Buckingham says it best:

“Clarity is the antidote to anxiety, and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader. If you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.”

Even with all of your feedback tools in place, you still have to ask for the playback. You need to know what people are hearing from you to ensure that you’re being clear. Without clarity, everyone tells their own story, and most of the time that story is wrong. This is when the crack in the dam starts to widen. If you don’t intervene fast enough, it will become impossible to repair.

That’s where we found ourselves in 2018 with a severe lack of clarity. This launched a series of internal pursuits and external opportunities to teach and train who we are, why we exist, and where we’re going as a company.

Here’s what we found:

  • Your company culture is built upon your values. Values exist within the context of one another. They do not work or live alone. You cannot protect one at the consequence of violating another.
  • Words are interpreted by each person through their own lens. If you don’t truly explain what the words mean for your company, you will naturally have confusion.
  • How your purpose, vision, and values came to be is just as important as what they are. Keep the narrative alive around how you came to realize the importance of words and concepts that originally formed your purpose and values.
  • In the absence of clarity, people tell their own stories. And most of the time, it is not the real story and can become destructive to your culture.
  • Your purpose and values are inherent and sacred. They can never be compromised for convenience or short-term economic gain. When push comes to shove, which are you picking?

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One last note about clarity: If the feedback you’re getting doesn’t match what you’re trying to say, it’s worth it to dig deeper. Investigate. And take the time to share the story and intention around your values and mission.

Lesson 4: Your Leadership Team = Your Company Culture, So They Need to Show Up Aligned

The best leadership teams are comprised of varied personalities, opinions, and viewpoints. That is crucial for a diversity of thought and making informed decisions. But the one place where everyone needs to be aligned and in agreement is around your purpose and your values. The “why” behind your business.

Showing up with arms locked, in unwavering support for that purpose and demonstrating your values flawlessly and consistently, is non-negotiable. When this doesn’t happen, it creates the tiny crack in the dam that grows and grows until it ultimately drowns your company. And you may not have even seen it coming.

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In the off chance you’ve convinced yourself that having one person out of alignment won’t wreck the whole thing, think of it this way. Ever imagined how much damage one car going the wrong way down a freeway can cause? That’s what it feels like to your people when one person is driving in a different direction.

What Company Culture Is Not

Aspirational

If you define your culture around what you wish it would beinstead of who you are, how you show up, and how you exist in life—then your culture becomes a facade. It’s a fake front hiding what’s really happening behind the scenes. It will lack the substance that makes it real, makes it strong, and makes it ring true for others.

Perks

Just because companies post fun pictures of people on scooters and comfy couches and free lunches, that does not a culture make. So go ahead, buy some scooters, invest your hard earned cash in feeding people lunch every day, and add a few couches for folks to lay around on and work in a horizontal position. Then, when the shininess of these perks dulls (and it happens pretty fast), what is your culture now? You still lack definition, buy-in, substance, and your true “why.”

The Flavor of the Month

Your company culture cannot change every time you read a cool new book about leadership. It is born with the vision of the company from the very beginning. It is integral to your core business and how you show up for your employees every day. A whiplash culture is destined to fail. So own your culture. Live it. Make it clear. And hire people who believe in it.

Last Tip: “If It Is to Be, It Is Up to Me”

Some parting advice. Don’t delegate culture. Own it. As an owner or a leader (or the “person in charge”), this is your first order of business. Handing culture off to someone else is a weenie move. You define it, make it come to life, and then you can delegate the job of ensuring that the people who join your ranks align and resonate with your culture.

If and when you take your eye off the road (because many companies do now and then) and hit that wall, it is also your job to pick up the pieces and put them back in place. I’m not gonna lie, it’s been the hardest part of my job. But it is also the most rewarding.

I lose sleep at night thinking about the integrity of our culture. If you are not up for that responsibility, even a seatbelt won’t save you when you hit that wall.

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