Apr 21

I’ve been very lucky to have worked with many small businesses from finance, marketing, non-profit, technology and healthcare.  It’s fascinating to learn what they do and how they do it.  In my experience, the most consistently successful companies are those that look carefully at how their culture develops.

Within a few months to 2 years of existence,  it’s a madhouse of activity, the company may just have been funded based on its initial idea for a service or product.  A founder or partners must now determine how to scale their operation.  I’ve helped with hiring, acted as a firefighter, hand-holder or punching bag during this busy time.

Frustration can flare up during this initial period.  What started as a great idea for one or a very tight small team now is subject to the entry of more people into the mix.  New customers are always coveted at this stage.  Customers validate the usefulness of the idea.  The product or service is valued and meets the need of someone, but there is a struggle to keep up with the demand.  Company founders need help with organizing and completing work.   A pattern of behavior emerges, always emanating with the leader.  Beliefs are formed and play out as the new enterprise does its business.    In the heat of the moment, however this new “culture” can sometimes go in a direction that is not intended by the leaders.  Disagreements arise on how we do things around here.  Communication that was so fluid and seamless at the start, bogs down as more people get their hands in the mix.

© Rawpixel -

© Rawpixel –

Words like fast-paced, dynamic or cutting-edge are used to describe the company at this stage.  The expression, “we work hard and play hard” finds its way onto websites.  However, the presence of a Foosball table and regular happy hours are not accurate indicators of a healthy culture.  What do we choose to focus on?  Is it the nuts and bolts of the service or product or is it purposefully defining the attitudes and behaviors of the people who will be joining the effort?

The challenge is to take highly individualized creatures like human beings and bring them together into an organization that can effectively serve its intended customer.  Cultures should be people-focused, from the founder of the business and often immediate family members to the first partners and employees who join the effort.  Often, however, we hire for expertise and past accomplishments and give little attention to the mindset and attitude and with virtually no attention to defining the culture in which all of these people operate.  Culture evolves, but performance suffers.  Valuable people leave or we can’t find the “right” people.

Simon Sinek defines culture as, “a group of people with a common set of values and beliefs”.  Although each organization should be distinct, we can look at examples of companies that meticulously defined and continuously cultivate their cultures and every action they take is consistent with that definition.  Their values and beliefs live in the people they employ.

Southwest Airlines is no longer considered a start-up, but in 1971, they had two planes flying between three cities. The company is a great model in culture-building.  Low fares were and are fundamental to their operation, but Southwest’s true success came from its clear definition of who it is as a company, a people-centric (really, not just lip service), hard-working, service oriented and fun-loving organization.

“If you make people your focus, your mission is eternal”, Herb Kelleher, Co-Founder of Southwest Airlines.

Although deeply respectful of all people, Southwest believes that its employees come first,  then customers and shareholders.  Although many companies boast about how important their employees are, customers are  primary and most follow” the customer is always right” philosophy.  Southwest remains true to this idea and has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to “fire” a customer who shows disrespect to its people.  Southwest understands that its culture, values and beliefs may not be for everyone.

This seems warm and fuzzy, but Southwest also expects “A Warrior Spirit”, which means hard work, never giving up in helping people to “move about the country”.  The company has standards for turnaround time and everyone must work together to make it happen.  Positions are defined much as in other airlines, but the strong expectation of serving others and demanding that people have a “Servant’s Heart” cause people to help others achieve success.

Southwest works hard to encourage people to have fun.  This sense of humor flows very directly from Kelleher.  The humorous routines of the SWA flight attendants are legendary. The company  builds questions into its interviewing that gauge a person’s tendency to embrace this behavioral value.  It has become a company that does not take itself too seriously.  Kelleher received a letter from Diane Von Ferstenberg.  She told him that she didn’t like the airline’s ambiance.  Keller responded that he didn’t know what the word meant at first, but when he found out, he was damned glad to know they had one.  He probably also told her that he would miss having her as a passenger, not bending over backward to placate a famous person.

Knowing who you are culturally also means knowing who you are not.  Southwest does not feel the need to follow the practices of other airlines in terms of having a variety of jets, using larger airports or traveling to international destinations.  I’ts worked pretty well given that they’re the only airline that’s been profitable for the entire duration of the airline industry.

So, how should one go about building the culture that one wants instead of what evolves naturally?  It’s important to take a significant amount of time on each of these areas.  They’re not warm and fuzzy activities, but essential to building a positive, lasting culture.

Who am I? Start at the top.  The entrepreneur/founder should take time to:

Understand their own strengths.

Develop the “why” of the organization. (Vision, Mission)

Who are we?  The founder and key partners must:

Understand each other’s strengths.

Identify the values and beliefs that will be most effective in furthering the mission and vision.

Establish what’s truly most important to us.

Develop how we work with one another.

Get specific and concrete on operational goals.

Where do we go from here?      To grow intelligently:

Select the right people to join us, based on who we truly are.

Build processes that make sense to get things done, yet conform to our values.

Stay true to the values and beliefs.


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