Company Culture Happens: Make Sure It’s Right for Your Small Business

Create a culture that benefits your employees, customers and small business.

When you think about great company culture, you may think of giants such as Google, Starbucks or Southwest Airlines. These industry heavyweights are regularly included on lists of best places to work, lauded for their happy workers and healthy work environments. But many small business owners are also succeeding at making the workplace enjoyable, building cultures that will help them grow well into the future.

Culture is increasingly becoming important to business leaders.

According to a recent study, companies with highly engaged employees have an easier time finding new hires, better customer service, less turnover and are more profitable in the long run. The same study revealed that 87 percent of organizations cited culture as one of their main challenges, and 50 percent called the topic “very important.”

“When you have a great culture, people want to come to work,” says Ann Rhoades, founder of People Ink and author of Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition. Rhoades has also served as the chief people officer at Southwest Airlines, Promus Hotel Company and JetBlue.

She defines culture as a set of expected behaviors, including how a company treats its employees and how employees treat customers. Rhoades notes that those big companies that regularly appear on these lists started as small businesses—and their engaged employee base is no accident. Instead, their culture is intentional, envisioned by the business founders and then regularly maintained.

Start with values and behaviors.

Small business owners looking to build—or revamp—their culture should begin by determining what’s important to their organization. Is it creating relationships? Putting customers first? Find out what your employees value, see if it matches your own thoughts, then attach behaviors to the values you want.

“The best cultures are by design, where the founders and leaders understand the behaviors they want to see in an organization,” Rhoades says.

For example, if your company values fun, define what that means, whether it’s being light- hearted with customers or having company parties. If integrity is a core value, then emphasize the related behaviors, like quickly addressing customer complaints or being upfront about fees and services.

Rick Backus agrees. He’s the CEO of San Diego-based CPC Strategy, a retail search agency. They employ 35 and are hiring another 10 this year. Backus says that defining the company’s values and related behaviors helps set expectations and ultimately allows small business owners to delegate their decision making. “You’re essentially giving your team a playbook,” he says. “They understand the belief system and they know what they’re working toward.”

Backus adds that small business owners often feel like their company and their employees are family, and he wants a culture that reflects that. Giving staff a comfortable work environment, paid time off and other benefits reinforce these values.

Putting values into action.

The next step is to hire and retain employees who mirror your company’s values. Jessica Mah is founder of San Francisco-based inDinero, which provides accounting, payroll and tax software to small businesses. She says defining what was important actually made the hiring process easier. Tracking and meeting performance metrics is a big part of the culture at her startup, which employs nearly 100 people. “So we look for people who are really numbers driven,” she says.

Finding those perfect culture matches is so important that some small business leaders involve their employees in hiring decisions, like David Lipes. Lipes is co-CEO of Montreal-based Budge Studios, a 75 person company that develops game apps for families and kids. “That way we end up with great people who want to work together,” he says. “We’re a smaller group and we work in an open area—it doesn’t take much to spoil that.”

Rhoades, with People Ink, suggests that small business owners look for ways to hold employees accountable to their corporate values. That could mean including values in performance reviews or setting up rewards programs. Rhoades recently consulted for a small company that revamped its values and then tied them to employee performance. Today, they even list their values in RFPs submitted to clients.

“Not only have they been getting more customers and delivering a better product, but the handful of employees who don’t mirror those values are self-ejecting,” she says.

Once you have it, maintaining a healthy corporate culture is key.

“We spend a lot of time talking about our values, who we are and how do we want to represent ourselves,” says Jeff Lind, founding partner of KnockTwice, a PR agency with a staff of 50 in Manhattan, Salt Lake City and San Francisco.

That constant reminder is crucial. Companies with great cultures keep their values front and center in many ways, from writing them on the walls and forming culture committees to rewarding employees who embody them in their compensation.

If you want to incorporate your values into your benefits package, make sure that what you’re offering makes sense for your employees. For example, new parents may appreciate life insurance and flexible work schedules, while younger staff might look for office amenities or stock options. Small businesses might also consider supplementing their health insurance offerings with other benefits including dental, vision and disability insurance.

Whether it’s what you intended, every business has a culture. “The earlier you address culture, the better,” Rhoades says. But, she adds, it’s never too late to start. Identifying your corporate values, defining the behaviors you want and then rewarding those who reflect them creates a more engaged workforce that enjoys coming to work. Your staff stands to benefit and so does your business.