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How to Build a Culture That Will Help Your Small Business Grow

ByBeth Lebowitz,
business.com writer
|
Nov 22, 2019
Kritchanut / Getty Images
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Here are four ways to build a culture that helps your small business grow.

Leaders have long known that company culture can make or break productivity, profitability, and overall business value. At the intersection of workplace culture development and legal operations, there exists a part of every organization that could truly be considered the lungs of the company. How well your team works – cohesively and individually – matters greatly to every facet of your business. And if your company culture is lacking, well, your entire organization is going to have real trouble going the distance. 

The modern workplace calls for more than talent, it calls for extreme trust and a level of transparency most employers aren't yet used to. Business leaders are being asked to share more than ever before, establishing open lines of insight and collaboration from the very top to the very bottom of the organization. It's safer for the company, legally speaking, and it's what today's incoming workforce is demanding. Don't believe me? Today's average cost to replace an employee is about one-third of that person's salary. Add to that the cost of lost productivity, and the average employee turnover at the standard small business can lead to an actual financial crisis. 

Good hiring, followed by good onboarding and good retention, is a critical endeavor for just about every scaling business. Here are some of the top ways to build a culture that helps you grow. 

1. Hire for culture as much as for skill.

You can and should make culture part of your hiring process. There are many questions you can ask during the interview process that will help you determine if and how a prospect will fit with your organization from a culture perspective. For example ...

  • What do you value most at work? 
  • What do you like and dislike about working with a team versus working by yourself on projects? 
  • Can you give an example of when you went above and beyond to help a colleague? 
  • Can you give an example of how you handled an interoffice conflict?
  • Can you give an example of a failure and what you learned from it?
  • Have you ever felt out of place at a previous job? Why? What did you take from that experience?

Interviews are also a good time to discuss with job candidates your company's core mission and beliefs. It's important that candidates know about your policies, your values, and how you address common workplace issues like work-life balance, recognition and achievements, and conflict resolution.

When I make a hire, I like to share what makes me proud of our company, and I make sure to be very transparent about how we prioritize culture. It also gives our job candidates the opportunity to evaluate us just as much as we're evaluating them. After all, company culture isn't just a two-way street – it's the merging of numerous lanes into one superhighway. 

2. Promote the trust collaboration.

When your company is in growth mode, your foundation is shaky by default. Even companies that have implemented processes and invested heavily in talent can't avoid growing pains. I teach clients to implement what I refer to as "the trust collaboration," where teams are encouraged to have open, vulnerable communication in environments that promote safety and trust.

This usually means establishing protocols in your handbook that talk about how your trust collaboration is defined and executed. The last thing you want is for employees to feel they're being ambushed or put in a situation that makes them uncomfortable. 

The purpose of a trust collaboration is to empower team members to acknowledge the efforts and accomplishments of their colleagues while sharing their challenges without fear of retribution. I've found that opening the door to letting employees talk openly and transparently in a safe environment can minimize workplace drama and improve productivity. 

Along with giving space to air grievances, I strongly encourage finding opportunities to celebrate and glean best practices from others' hard work, successes and even failures (because that's where learning happens). This kind of environment fosters a level of collaboration that most employers want. 

3. Promote transparency across the board.

An old-school saying I hear a lot with clients is "loose lips sink ships." It's a common phrase in larger organizations, the root of which has to do with the idea that when information is leaked from the top, it turns into rumors, and chaos ensues. The old-school answer was to ensure that those "in the know" kept their mouths shut when it came to everything from changes in leadership to financial performance. 

My answer to this is to do the opposite to a certain extent and embrace transparency. Hear me out.

You don't need to tell your team every time you're concerned about sales performance or are having an off-the-cuff conversation with a potential investor. Team members don't need to be burdened with those details. However, when you are transparent and share that Q2 revenue was below projections and Q3 isn't looking good, a few important things will happen. One, your team will know that leadership trusts them enough to be open and include them in what's happening. Two, you don't risk information being leaked and spiraling out of control to the point that it isn't accurate. Three, you will find that ideas to solve the problem can come from all areas of the company. Perhaps one of those ideas will turn things around by Q3.

Most importantly, when leadership is transparent and communicative, the rest of the company is, too. Closed-off communications and business practices can lead to an environment of uneasiness and even resentment.

When communication is poor, employees tend to fill in the gaps, often with less-than-favorable assumptions. There is no doubt that companies with heightened transparency and collaboration foster engagement and equality, which leads to much higher productivity. 

4. Demonstrate accountability.

Another old-school businessism I don't subscribe to is the notion that failure isn't an option. 

Here's the thing: Failure is the only option. If you aren't failing, you aren't learning. An organization of humans who fear making mistakes is destined to fail. Plus, your turnover will be sky high. Embrace the fact that mistakes will happen – every day – and lean into a culture of accountability. Own mistakes, openly learn from them and grow. It's not enough to put this on a poster in the hall, you must live it. 

Accountability within an organization starts from the top, with transparent performance standards that apply to everyone, including leaders. If I don't model what it looks like to be accountable, then how can I expect my leadership to do this and the people they manage?

A culture of accountability also feeds into the safe, trusting environment that's so important to productivity. Create a workplace where people feel they have the space and the freedom to do their absolute best, mistakes included, and you'll find your recruiting costs ticking to $0. 

Your employees are the lifeblood of the organization, and when they're working together harmoniously, that's when awesome things happen. You can always provide more training or additional resources for your team members to get better at their jobs, but you simply can't train for a culture fit.

Prioritize culture fit during the hiring process, promote the trust initiative across all departments and levels of your business, and make sure you practice the culture you preach.

Beth Lebowitz
Beth Lebowitz
See Beth Lebowitz's Profile
I’ve been an Outsourced General Counsel now for almost four years and this type of practice has revolutionized how I view the practice of law. I work in my client’s offices and know their team, from the sales reps to the executive leadership to the dev team. Together we craft solutions to mitigate risk and creatively address issues proactively. My goal is to be the first person the CEO or CFO calls when they want to discuss a new product, an internal process, or an upcoming deal or transaction. The company pays a flat monthly fee, just like a salary. This creates a much deeper, ongoing, and collaborative relationship between attorney and client, which I absolutely love. When meeting with new prospects and companies, we talk about what their pain points are, not necessarily what I do. Because what I do as an Outsourced GC is to find ways to solve their problems, whether that be implementing equity management and corporate governance technology, taking over the sales contract negotiation process, organizing, updating, and managing their contract templates, or simply answering legal questions from the entire team. My legal practice started with early stage start-up companies because I loved getting involved from the ground-floor and helping founders make decisions to set their companies up for success. From there, I started working with later stage, growth companies, and the opportunity to get involved at a leadership level to support corporate executives in making decisions was a natural and exciting progression. Fundamentally, my goal in practice is to completely change the nature of the attorney – client relationship. I work with a small, core group of companies that I know very well and that know me very well. There is no question of when or whether to call the attorney. In the business context, I believe having a business-minded attorney on your team can make a huge difference.
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