The 5 most important things a CEO can do to build a strong culture

As a CEO, you have more of an influence on your company’s culture than anyone else in the company. While you can’t create the culture on your own, what you do (and don’t do) everyday will illustrate to your team members what you value, and in turn what the company values and expects from its people. By your example, people will understand what behaviors are appropriate and what it takes to get ahead in your company.

The bad news is that, more than anyone else, you have to be thoughtful day in and day out about everything that you do and say. The good news is that, if you get this right, it will make a bigger difference than any other factor in enabling you to achieve massive business success, work with an amazing team in an energized environment, and make the difference you want to make in the world.  So, what are the 5 most important things you can do to build a strong culture?

  1. Create a truly inspiring vision.
  2. Know your own values.
  3. Define your company’s values AND the observable behaviors that embody them.
  4. Check your checkbook. Check your calendar.
  5. Hire for values. Fire for values.

Let’s take a quick look at each of these:

1. Create a truly inspiring vision.

The term ‘inspiring vision’ has been thrown around so much that leaders often forget the simple message inherent in it: your vision for the future must actually inspire you and the people on your team. To be inspired is to feel a sense of aliveness, a sense that what you’re doing matters, of a meaningful and formidable challenge to be overcome.

Think about the difference in the culture of a group of cyclists out for a Sunday ride and a group about to embark on a ride across the country. Or a group of hikers on a jaunt through the hills compared to a group about to ascend Mount Everest. Even the exact same groups of people would experience dramatically different group dynamics, environments and senses of relatedness, excitement, and yes, inspiration. You might think of the most inspiring visions as perched just on the edge between the impossible and the achievable – and if achieved, would represent a meaningful positive change in the world.

2.  Know your own values.

If you’re going to truly create a values-driven company, you need to first have the experience of operating your own life in accordance with your personal values. Taking the time to clarify what’s most important to you and ensure that you’re making choices based on your values will help you to see firsthand the difference that it makes in your life, and strengthen your resolve to create a values-driven organization.

Making tough choices and tradeoffs that exhibit your commitment to honoring your company’s values is where the rubber meets the road on developing a strong culture. As an example, think about having to hire a top-performing sales rep who violates your company’s value (and associated behavioral norm) of respect or kindness. The more you’re making these kinds of tradeoffs in your own life, and seeing the extraordinary benefit, the easier it will be for you to do so in your business. [Visit this post to learn how to discover your personal values.]

3. Define your company’s values AND the observable behaviors that embody them

Whether you’ve tried to define it or not, you have a culture. If you haven’t put much thought or intention into it, your culture is likely some reflection of your own values and behaviors, and some of the early norms and expectations that have been established by you and the first few people on your team. People will have a vague sense of what’s expected and ‘how we do things around here’, but considerable stress will be created and productivity lost due to the lack of clear, agreed-upon expectations. As the CEO, you’ll find yourself dealing with a number of ad hoc ‘behavioral issues’ and frustrated by your team members doing things that so clearly (to you) are not in the best interest of the team or company.

Taking the time to get together with your team (or if you’re team has more than 20 – 30 people, a representative sample of your team from across each and every group) to have a conversation about what values are implicit in your company’s culture today, and what you want your company’s values to be may be the most important conversation (or more likely, series of conversations) you’ll ever have. It will allow you to make explicit tradeoffs and expectations that have thus far been unspoken and likely met only sporadically. [More on the process of coming up with your company’s values in a later post].  You’ll need to work with your team to prioritize the values, and come up with a set of only the 5 or so (and no more than 10) key values for your company.

The values should support and align with your company’s overall vision, mission, strategy and objectives. It’s important that you don’t just stop at creating a list of words or phrases to represent your values. This will leave too much open for interpretation.  Beginning with the words or phrases, you should take the time to define what they mean AND come up with a few key observable behaviors that embody these values in your company. These behaviors can then serve as the basis for your interview questions, and performance review criteria, which will enable you to scale your culture as the company grows.

4.  Check your checkbook. Check your calendar.

Even if you’re amongst the few companies to take the time to define the core values and key behaviors for your company, it’s all for naught if you don’t make sure you are living them every day. The best measures of your values as a company are how you spend your money and time.

Do you claim to value ‘learning’, but have zero budget allocated for training & development, and barely spend time with your team debriefing failures? Do you list ‘collaboration’ as a value, but spend no money on events designed to help your team members get to know each other, and relatively little time getting input from your team members on key decisions?

What drives your decisions everyday as a leader?  If you answered something other than your company’s values, it will be reflected in how you show up every day as a leader, and you can bet your team members are paying attention. One of the things that new leaders often fail to realize is just how closely scrutinized their behaviors are by their team members. They’re looking to you for cues on what’s appropriate behavior, what’s expected of them, and what gets rewarded (whether through promotion/compensation or through a pat on the back you give, or who gets your attention and focus).

You have the greatest opportunity to reinforce the values of your company by living them every day through the way you behave. If you want to build a great culture, make sure to continuously check in on your budget and calendar to ensure the way you spend your time, and the company’s money, aligns with your values. Ensure the way you behave and the decisions you make reflect your company’s values. If you don’t hold yourself accountable for living your company’s values in the ways that are most observable to your team members, you can be sure no one will hold themselves accountable for doing so either.

[For more on this idea, check out this video of Ann Rhoades, former Chief of People for Southwest Airlines, talking about living your company values]

5. Hire for values.  Fire for values.

Three of the most visible signals of your company’s values are: (i) who gets hired, (ii) who gets promoted, and (iii) who gets fired.  Each of these is an amazing opportunity to exhibit to your team members what you truly value as a company, and also a potential trap if you violate your values in any of these three decisions.  Imagine you’re part of a fast-growing company that, in its rush to grow and meet ever-expanding feature requests and customer demands, hires a rockstar software engineer who just so happens to be an egotistical a-hole. What happens inside you? What do you internalize about what’s important to the company?

As important as the signal it sends to other team members, the constellation of the team itself is defined by these three key decisions. If you don’t adhere rigidly to your company’s values when making these decisions, it’s unlikely that you’ll end up with the ‘right people on the bus’ and ‘the wrong people off the bus’ and your ability to build a strong culture will be greatly diminished. Companies with renowned cultures like Zappos and Facebook have zero tolerance when it comes to values fit in hiring. If you don’t fit, you don’t get hired.

Of course it’s easier for companies with that much prominence to make those tradeoffs, but how do you think they got there in the first place?  If your goal is to be one of those extraordinary companies, you must hire, promote and fire for values from day 1.

Firing is an especially important one to focus on because most leaders wait way too long, or are way too hesitant to fire a performing team member who violates the company’s values. In almost every instance I’ve heard of, once they fire the person who doesn’t fit, everyone else on the team breathes a sigh of relief, and the company suddenly is able to move to the next level.  It shouldn’t be a surprise, either. If everyone knows what the values and behavioral expectations are, and that embodying the company’s values is a requirement to get promoted and keep your job, people who don’t fit will self-select out, and the people who stick around will be much more likely to behave in the ways that are (clearly!) expected of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ventolin frequency