Culture is the way people reliably engage with their work and with one another, as determined by shared values and behavioral norms. And culture is important because it shapes the outcomes you can expect. We like to say it’s the “driver of operating results.”
But creating a thriving culture can feel like a black box. It’s not a topic that’s covered in business school. And thriving cultures require intention. They’re created. They don’t just happen. You shouldn’t hope to stumble into one, but you do have the agency to shape one.
The recipe for a thriving culture includes four ingredients.
Ingredient 1: Values
A value is what you, as the owner, think is most important. It won’t be a comprehensive list of all your personal values. But it will include what you believe to be the most important.
As a general rule, we suggest having three to eight company values. Fewer than three probably fails to capture important dimensions of your culture. More than eight is too many for you or anyone else on your team to remember. Five might just be the ideal number. But go with what feels right for your company. At Full Focus, we have eight.
Your values are one of the most permanent parts of your business, but that doesn’t mean they never change. We revisit our values every year during strategic planning. Some years, we’ve archived one value and replaced it with another. Most years, we tweak the descriptions of a value or two.
It’s important to recalibrate our values each year, because they guide our decisions, from recruiting and hiring to annual reviews. We don’t live them perfectly. Values are, in a sense, aspirational. They’re within reach but require us to stretch. They call out the best in us each day—and some days, making the right decision isn’t easy. But when we allow our values to guide our decisions, we reliably end up where we want to go.
Ingredient 2: Behaviors
Values only work if they’re matched by behaviors. One of the best ways to encourage these behaviors on your team is to define them explicitly.
In a recent team training on our values at Full Focus, we walked through a list of behaviors and “anti-behaviors” that characterize each of our values. These lists included observable, recognizable actions that demonstrate what our behaviors look like and what they don’t look like. When you clearly articulate your values and how they can be lived out, it sets your team up to win.
The behaviors might seem self-evident to you as the business owner, because your personal values have shaped the values of your business. But don’t assume they are self-evident to your team. Instead, list out in detail the behaviors your values will lead to, and the behaviors they will lead your team to avoid. Clarity is essential for alignment, which is our next ingredient.
Ingredient 3: Alignment
Alignment refers to the degree to which your team embodies your values by practicing the behaviors you’ve articulated. Alignment begins with your example and your rhythms of revisiting your values.
As the leader, your commitment to your values must be obvious. It must be clear that you submit yourself to your values, especially in difficult situations. A leader’s failure to live in alignment with their values is the quickest way to breed cynicism.
In those human moments when you fail, take ownership in front of the people who witnessed your failure. Those moments reinforce your values more memorably than getting it right the first time.
Your values also need to become a common part of the vocabulary of your company. You need to refer to them by name and revisit them over and over. We walk through our values together as a company once a quarter, going more in-depth during our annual all-team meeting. We also refer to them in our day-to-day interactions together.
Talking about your values regularly helps your team to memorize them. And they’ll practice what they’ve memorized.
Ingredient 4: Maturity
Values work best when they’re held to with wisdom, humility, and self-leadership. Each individual should begin by looking within themselves, holding themselves accountable for their own behaviors. At the same time, they should celebrate when they notice others living by your company values.
I like to distinguish between “values cheerleaders” and “values police.” We want to be values cheerleaders. We want everyone on our team to notice and encourage one another when they notice their colleagues living in alignment with company values. We don’t want them to condemn one another when they witness their colleagues falling short.
That doesn’t mean we never hold one another accountable. But accountability should always happen in the context of grace. Accountability without grace leads to shame, and shame leads people to hide instead of grow. We want our team to be for one another and practice kindness toward one another.
Values are our compass for navigating the everyday decisions at our company. When we’re not where we want to be, we rely on our values to help us course-correct. We champion growth over perfection. We seek to live our values better today than we did yesterday.
Defining, talking about, and practicing values is how company culture grows. Building a thriving company culture isn’t always easy. But it’s work you can do. It’s work you need to do, for the good of your results and, more importantly, for the good of your team.
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