Culture Cheat Sheet — 50 Ideas for Identifying, Building and Maintaining Your Company Culture
Whether you are starting a new business, part of an existing team, or running a large business, the culture at your workplace affects everything you do on a daily basis.
Culture is how your organisation is run. Culture is the behaviour you reward and punish, and the people you hire and fire. Culture is what you do, not what you say. Culture is how your team acts when no is watching.
Culture drives your people to march forward collectively with passion, humility and shared values. It changes starkly and rapidly with a change in executive leadership, especially the CEO.
Culture Code Toolkit #
While working in leadership roles for over a decade, I developed a personal Culture Code Toolkit that I practice actively while managing, coaching and working with various teams. Embarrassingly, so many of these are lessons learnt the hard way by making tons of mistakes along the way.
Here are 50 ideas from the toolkit for identifying, building and maintaining the culture in your organisation:
I. Long-Term #
1. Always Be in “Day One” or Perpetual Work in Progress State #
Day One breeds energy, nimbleness and entrepreneurial mentality enabling you to make faster high-quality decisions, and builds an acute awareness of changes in customer behaviour and market factors.
2. Be as Radically Transparent Within the Business as You Can #
Radical transparency isn’t about giving access to CEO’s emails to everyone rather providing all the information about the business to every employee, within legal remit, irrespective of their position in the business.
3. Obsess Delighting Customers Over Competitors, Investors and Stakeholders #
It’s far easier to focus on short-term results to keep investors and stakeholders happy over consistently delighting hard-to-please customers. Would you rather be Amazon or RyanAir? Both are profitable yet one is loved and other is hated to the core.
4. Build a Shared Ownership That Celebrates Team’s Success Over Individual’s Success #
The collective intelligence of a well-aligned team almost always produces better results than an individual. It’s vital to recognise an individual’s contribution but it’s more important to celebrate great teamwork. This-is-not-my-job attitude is the antithesis to shared ownership.
5. The Founder’s / CEO’s Attitude and Personality Has Massive Impact on Your Company’s Culture #
A company is an extension of its founder’s personality. How the person thinks, behaves and works, their values, attitude and behaviour — all trickles down to everyone. CEO is an embodiment of company culture and their actions have a disproportionate impact on the overall culture.
6. Nothing You Do in a Business Is Private Anymore #
This one is hard to swallow. People are demanding transparency, openness and fairness in all aspects of business for the right reasons. Everything from your CEO’s performance to interview processes, carbon footprint, diversity ratio and customer service is being reviewed and documented online, either anonymously or non-anonymously. The power is in the hand of employees where a blog post can fuel the #metoo movement or a single case of unethical business practices or data breach can bring your entire company crumbling down.
7. Diversity Is a Competitive Advantage That Your Competitors Haven’t Realised It Yet #
It’s shocking how many managers still hire their mini-me’s from their small and homogenous network. Diversity is not limited to skin colour, race, religion or gender. It rather covers a vast spectrum of backgrounds, ideas, ways of thinking, cultures and sometimes conflicting personalities. Embracing diversity will grow your talent pool, improve innovation, employee performance and understanding of customer needs.
8. Think Beyond Serving Customers to Have an Impact on Wider Community and Rest of the Planet #
Mission-driven companies that genuinely care about giving back to society and moving humanity forward create lasting success and a loving brand. This has to become the core part of your DNA and business model for you to move beyond giving free volunteering time to employees and ticking few CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) boxes.
9. Truly Invest in Staff Development Knowing They Will Sadly Not Stay Long #
The average tenure of an employee has reduced to only a couple of years. People are joining your company or team to prepare for the next step in their career, not to get married or tied for life. Whatever reason you give to convince yourself, be it charity, good karma or brand reputation, do your best to invest in the development of people and help them learn and grow. The ROI on this is humungous in the long-term.
10. Optimise for Meaningful Work and Meaningful Relationships #
Your company culture needs to add meaning to the work every employee is doing, no matter how menial the job is, and facilitate meaningful relationships. Think of the janitor story from NASA who replied to President Kennedy “I’m helping put a man on the moon!”. The janitor saw beyond the work (cleaning), understood the vision and his part in accomplishing that vision.
II. Flexibility #
11. Being Agile Is Critical for Entire Organisation Not Just Technology Teams #
The only constant in today’s fast-moving world is “Change”. The companies able to survive and thrive in this environment are the ones with true agility at their core. It’s not uncommon to see amazing people failing terribly by being victims of the behemoth actively guarding and resisting the change and status-quo.
12. Favour Smaller Teams of 8-10 People Over Larger Teams #
Even when there are larger teams working on a project, natural groups of 8-10 people will emerge from within those teams. Whether you want to use Amazon’s infamous two-pizza rule or any other measure to arrive at the optimal size, smaller teams are more effective and able to move faster. Leaders often make the mistake of throwing more money and people at the problem making it worse without addressing the underlying problems.
13. Nobody Should Have More Than Ten Direct Reports Including the CEO #
The effectiveness of management starts to lose its charm if a person has more than ten reports. If you see a manager boasting about a large number of direct reports, it’s a telling sign those people are nothing more than a line on the org chart.
14. Allow Remote Work and Flexible Working Hours #
It’s crazy how many employers push for employees to spend 100% of their time at the office and work within strict hours. This inflexibility is one of the top reasons those people consider it as a job to make a living instead of a reason to make a wonderful life.
15. Have a Kickass Hiring, Onboarding and Exit Process #
This is the single biggest missed opportunity overlooked by most companies. Your hiring and onboarding processes, timelines and interactions are equivalent of baptising newcomers into your company culture. If the situation arises to let people go due to change in business direction, offer big severance packages and do your best to help them settle in the next phase of their life. Give amazing send-offs to leavers.
16. Have a Dedicated Team to Focus on Culture and Employee’s Mental and Physical Wellbeing #
You could say the HR team is there to take care of employees but everyone knows the function exists to watch your company’s back first and will throw any employee under the bus should they have to make a choice. Having a dedicated person or team focused on people’s growth, wellbeing will go a long way in building a great culture. And no, it won’t work by changing your HR team job titles to People, Talent or something similar.
17. Actively Encourage and Support in Building Your Employee’s “Personal Brand” #
This might be controversial. Personal Brand is one of the unspoken reasons people would want or not want to join your business. It’s akin to millennials not going to a restaurant with poor Instagram presence. It’s not a coincidence people want to join Google, Facebook or the likes of Amazon as they see it as a platform to open up big opportunities in their career. Embrace it and support it, don’t fight it.
18. Treat Contractors and Consultants as Partners Instead of Outsiders or Hired Guns #
You are fooling yourself thinking every permanent employee is more committed than external contractors and going to stay with you forever (see point 9). Consultants are generally results-driven and have more to prove. Creating a culture of equality will enable a deeper partnership and generate more long-term value. This applies to external agencies as well.
19. Pay Above Market Salaries and Offer Benefits That People Want #
How many companies have you worked at where the majority of benefits offered as part of the job weren’t of interest to you? How many time have you seen a similar job you are doing marketed by other companies at higher salaries? You know the answer. To attract the best talent, you have to pay the best money you can afford topped up by benefits people actually want.
20. Say No to Industrial-Era Carrot and Stick Style Bonus #
I’m guilty of it myself. It’s hard to resist creating bonuses and rewards purely based on results as it’s easier to manage and control. Science confirms people aren’t pets and this approach doesn’t work. Instead, use RESPECT (Recognition, Empowerment, Support, Partnership, Expectations, Consideration and Trust) model.
III. Performance #
21. Encourage all Leaders to Practice Servant Leadership Style #
Leaders should work for their team, rather than the other way around. Change your approach and mentality from ‘Command and Control’ to ‘Serve and Develop’. Not only it delivers better results but it’s also deeply satisfying.
22. Have a Strong Bias Towards Action #
There are plenty of naysayers, non-believers, smooth talkers and the ones who enjoy workplace politics and resist taking action at all costs. You can’t change their behaviour and attitude overnight. However, you can resolve this slowly by building an action-oriented culture from the bottom up, and by hiring for the right attitude and values in first place.
23. Continuously Align Everyone Towards Results and Outcomes Over Outputs #
It’s so easy to drift into the oblivion of staying busy and doing things. Your team may be producing reports, campaigns, building product features and doing lots what may seem like progress but isn’t. You need to keep teams focused on the outcomes and results that will deliver value for your business and customers instead of being blindsided by outputs. Motion doesn’t equal progress.
24. Don’t Measure Performance by Number of Hours or Effort Alone No Matter How Irresistible It Is #
A rookie mistake made by the majority of newly minted and some experienced managers is to behave like a watchkeeper counting team’s hours. There are plenty of bad managers who (subconsciously) measure productivity by overtime, emails exchanged or other silly metrics. Reddit is full of horrible stories of managers measuring time spent in the toilet… ugh! Plenty of Amazon documentaries detail horror stories from warehouses. Measure what counts – not documents produced, emails sent or hours clocked.
25. Reward Consistent Strong Performance Over One-Hit Wonders #
A sales manager I worked with brought in a big account within the first month of their joining and didn’t deliver any results for almost a year after that win eventually leading to their dismissal. It’s not uncommon for employees to bank upon their one-hit wonders combined with small successes to stay afloat for a long time. Strong performers don’t like promoting themselves. Their work speaks for itself and they deliver results every single time.
26. Provide Best Tools for the Job Your Company Can Afford #
When you provide antiquated systems and tools that are difficult to use, it makes people hate their job, you (the manager) and the company. The cost of lost productivity is massive too when you add it up for all employees. Whether it’s software or hardware, always buy the best you can afford and replace it every couple of years. Give people the choice to buy the hardware they want - Space Grey MacBook or Hardcore Linux Machine - don’t forget it reflects on who they are.
27. Have Regular Workshops for Interpersonal Skills Even for Most Senior People #
Which leader around you including yourself would openly rate themselves as a poor communicator with poor time management and leadership skills — No one. Yet, most of us need constant training, learning and development to be better leaders. Narcissistic CEOs, the one on top of the leadership pack, do exist not out of their desire or personality but for the lack of development throughout their career.
28. Encourage Healthy Arguments With Full Support Even in the Face of Disagreements #
If people in your company can’t have respectful yet healthy arguments and instead take things personally, it would be an uphill battle to develop an open and transparent feedback culture. You can use 15 x 5 method to improve flow of information, communication and feedback cycle.
29. Don’t Be Afraid of Constraints — They Are the Bedrock of Innovation and Creativity #
Time and again you will notice how constraints actually breed great innovations and creative solutions. Embrace the constraints be its budget, team size, time, or screen sizes but don’t go overboard by being too stingy either and misuse the power of constraints. It can fire back badly leading to highly-stressed workplace culture.
30. Build a Solid Repository of Shared Tools, Practices and Beliefs #
An often ignored aspect of building high-performance teams is building a shared set of tools, practices and beliefs. It’s even more important to use them regularly and make part of your daily professional life. There is no shortage of teams spending months of effort to create guidelines, documentation but not much of it is used on a day-to-day basis. Shared tools, practices and beliefs are foundations for excellent performance over the long-term.
IV. Environment #
31. Don’t Judge How and Where People Are Spending Their Time #
It’s easy for people to start gossiping e.g. ‘Mark is never at his desk’, or ‘Sarah takes really long lunch breaks’. You have hired responsible adults, trust them to do their job in the way it works for them. Absolutely hold them accountable for the results and set high-standards for work but don’t judge how they work. Most people don’t get their best ideas chained to the desk.
32. Keep Fairly Flat Structure With Open Access to the Executive Leadership #
As your company grows, so will the hierarchies and job titles no matter what kind of organisational structure you follow - Matrix, Holacracy, Divisional, Squad etc. You should have a flat structure with open access to any person in any department across the organisation.
33. Encourage and Support Work-Life Integration, Not Work vs. Life Competition #
Work-Life balance is such a flawed concept as it puts work and life at odds with each other as if you can only have one at a time. A flexible culture that puts the health and well-being of employees first and supports an individual’s interest goes a long way in attracting great talent.
34. Create a Place to Work Without Interruptions, Not Limiting It to Booths and Meeting Rooms #
Having worked in different countries and companies, I’ve seen the first hand impact of the level of quietness on work. It’s almost impossible to get work done at some workplaces. Most open spaces are poorly designed where a whole bunch of people can easily hear the conversation between two people. Think about office layout, work policies and creating awareness. Employees shouldn’t be interrupted every 15 minutes or feel the need to respond to emails and chat messages instantly.
35. Absolutely Make Sure the Process Doesn’t Become a Thing; People Over Processes #
As a Product Management Consultant, this is one pattern that keeps repeating over and over. In the majority of companies, there are people totally married to “The Process” i.e. how things must be done. You would have probably experienced it with customer care centres or Agile teams who are enslaved to their processes ignoring the common sense and obvious choices. People come first and they should be able to evolve the process in a way that works for them.
36. Get Rid of Toxic People Asap No Matter How Valuable They Are #
Even the best CEOs fail at this one by hanging out for the toxic people who, generally, are great individual contributors but a total shock to your company’s culture. Think of a smart software engineer who is great at his work but demeans others and is a nightmare to work with.
37. Practice Radical Candor by Caring Personally and Challenging Directly #
Radical Candor is akin to what leaders have referred for long as open and direct feedback while being respectful. An environment where employees feel safe to give feedback to each other openly without getting defensive is a great place to be. Don’t use the s**t sandwich (positive-negative-positive) feedback style, it may have worked earlier but there is no place for such trickery in today’s world.
38. Aim for “Done” Over Perfect #
I’m not an advocate of Facebook’s ‘Move fast and break things’. Move fast part is necessary for many businesses to survive but you should move fast by being more agile and adaptable. Choose ‘done’ over perfect by aiming for completion that does the job well enough, and then iterate in the open to make it better.
39. Foster Good Relationships With Meaningful Team Activities #
Some leaders and companies tend to push for the family spirit, which I don’t buy into. The relationship between employees is friendly yet professional. We have all seen as things get tough, your colleagues are the first to be thrown under the bus. Family dynamics are totally different.
Foster good relationships between team members by giving them audacious problems to solve together, arrange get-togethers, learning sessions and other activities that provide space to mingle and grow together.
40. Don’t Be Afraid To Challenge The Status Quo #
It’s actually easier more than ever to challenge the status quo as the threats to your business model are visible, imminent and fast. Leaders, often in larger organisations, fight tooth and nail to stick to their existing way of doing things without risking or cannibalising their existing revenue streams.
V. Communication #
41. Speak the Truth and Share the Facts Not What They Want to Hear #
It’s common for managers and leaders to withhold the information, share the good parts and tell their team what they want to hear. This often leads to mistrust as the same person will be hearing different stories from various leaders. Additionally, leaders would be spending an inordinate amount of time to make sure their stories are aligned.
It’s possible that sharing some information can worry your employees, given an impression of a sinking ship or even scare them off to a competitor. You would rather have employees who can stand through both good and tough times together.
42. Conduct Regular All-Hands and CEO One-to-One’s With Employees #
A good number of companies conduct all-hands in some form by bringing all employees under one roof physically or via remote dial-ins. Those meetings are still one-to-many for the most part where few people are bringing rest of the organisation up to speed taking a few questions here and there. It’s particularly effective if the CEO takes 10-15 mins time slots with people randomly from the organisation to get a pulse and understand what’s happening.
43. Act on Learnings From Mistakes, Not on the Mistakes #
It’s way easier for us to get hung up on the mistakes, damage caused and opportunities lost. However, just like worrying won’t help you make progress, dwelling on mistakes and blaming others won’t help you move ahead. Look into the actions you need to take to avoid making the same mistakes again.
44. Address Negative People and Negativity No Matter How Menial Their Complaints Are #
Negative people can’t help but complain and moan all the time for little things. It becomes their second nature and they do it without realising. Some throw tantrums from time to time. People surrounding a negative person generally see it through and tend to avoid them or build a “he/she is always like that…” type mechanism.
Don’t laugh it off or leave it unattended. It’s only a matter of time negativity rots your culture from inside. It’s not always the outspoken ones who spread negativity.
45. Learn and Teach How to Think, Critical Thinking is the Harbinger of Success #
Critical Thinking is the most underdeveloped skill among employees. Workplaces today would be happier, more creative and productive if one acquired critical thinking early in their life. Despite our brains thinking millions of thoughts daily, it takes a deliberate process and effort to learn how to think properly.
46. Focus on Big Picture Regularly With a Minimum Weekly Cadence #
This is a must-do for leaders but helpful for employees at all levels. Friday’s are the best to take a step back and assess the overall direction, progress and strategy to make you are still on track and your teams are focused on what matters most.
47. Listen Well and Stay Calm in Stressful Situations #
Listening is a skill that takes years to develop, and in some cases decades. It’s all too easy to feel strong emotions of anger, despair and sadness when things close to your heart go wrong by someone else’s negligence or fault.
The biggest mistakes I regret from my early years are the emails written in the heat of things or the words said. Learn to stay calm in tough situations and deal with the situation with a cool head. No one likes a hot head shouting on their peers to make things worse.
48. Be Human, Speak Like One And Cut All the Jargon #
Don’t you hate it when people are trying to drop in acronyms, jargon and fluff to sound smarter? Recently a sales representative was explaining a broadband package to me and spoke for straight 7-8 minutes. I summarised what she said in literally one sentence and she said, “Yup! that’s what I meant”.
When you find yourself blabbing and saying way more than you need to explain something, it’s a telling sign you are trying too hard or don’t understand it well enough.
Don’t invent new acronyms like CATS for Cool-API-That-Scales to make people’s life miserable around you. You are also better off using descriptive project names like Event Management Tool instead of Acropolis.
49. See Things From Others Perspective #
Your interpretation of life events doesn’t often match the reality. Infact, it has nothing to do with the event itself in most cases. Let’s say your boss didn’t give you a promotion, he/she sucks, right? Whether it deflates your ego, lowers your self-esteem, breaks your confidence, or makes you hate your boss more, it’s all in your head. Instead, you can look it from their perspective, understand and address the reasons. Change your perspective, change your life.
50. Know What You Stand For #
The default choice for many is not to care or stand for anything at all. Know what you stand for, what inspires you, and what motivates you. It will increase your chances of making an impact on something meaningful and personal to you. You can start by assessing how you spend your time. Your priorities will reflect some of what you care about.
Summary ✍️ : #
Culture is an afterthought for many leaders. A marketing director tends to focus on marketing, finance director on finance and so on. Culture is everyone’s responsibility. Every individual who is part of the company is shaping it whether they realise it or not.
As a leader, you should keep the culture front and centre of your mind, document it, discuss it and evolve it. After all, it’s who you are.
Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments by email or Twitter.
Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash