How to Build Company Culture for the Long Haul

When you first start a business, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. After all, that’s what makes your company successful: You have a unique idea, and you bring it to life better than anyone else in the world.

As the company grows, some entrepreneurs and executives try to bring that startup attitude to the company culture. They assume that as long as they hire individually awesome people, the company culture will be awesome, too.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Whether you have one, five, or 100 employees, company culture is the result of intentional, targeted work on behalf of a leadership team — not the result of quirky interview questions.

But there’s good news, too. You don’t have to reinvent your company’s approach to company culture the way you reinvented your industry. You simply need to tap into the best practices of companies that have gone before you and tweak them to suit your environment.

Over the past six years, my startup has taken an entrepreneurial culture of two employees (Ben Rigsby and myself) and turned it into a fast-paced and demanding (and enormously satisfying) culture of more than 30 full-time team members.

Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about building a hiring process that recruits exactly the sort of person who is successful at our company and who, in turn, contributes meaningful work that makes our company successful.

Whether you have a staff of two or 20, here are three things you can do to build a unique culture that grows with you:

1. Hire slow, fire fast, and pay them to leave. Asking, “What color Crayola are you?” may elicit an interesting response, but screening your candidates needs to happen before the interview. Use a system like the Topgrading process to focus on attracting better candidates in the first place, thereby screening for fit before you consider skills and qualifications. Never rush a hire, and never turn a blind eye to fit over skills and qualifications.

Every day that you try to function with a poor culture fit on your team, your business suffers. If you realize you made a mistake after hiring someone, don’t dawdle about firing him. Follow Zappos’ footsteps and offer a pay-to-leave policy. At our company, if the employee or manager feels it’s not the right fit, we pay a two-week severance package. It’s a win-win for everybody.

2. Talk about fight club. Don’t make company culture something secretive. Share your company culture out in the open. In interviews, openly communicate the kind of culture you cultivate and the expectations you have for all applicants. When you talk about your culture so much that your team jokes about it, you know you’ve emphasized it enough.

Within your unique culture, practice transparency in all you do. This will help underscore your commitment to your team and eliminate negative back-channel conversations. In our case, we follow in the footsteps of several successful companies with daily all-hands huddles that help us refocus and remain transparent. We also have quarterly executive coaching sessions as a team, so everyone creates their goals together.

3. Focus on the positive (and support that message with actual policy). Create processes and policies that support the positive behavior you want to see in the workplace, and talk about them every day with your team, clients, and potential clients. Celebrate all victories, no matter how small, and publicly reward employees who execute on your values.

In our company, we value teamwork and company outcomes. To encourage our staff, we took a page from Huawei and decided to share the wealth. We give 20 percent of the company profits back to our employees based on their company tenure. We position this as an incentive for each team member to act as an owner of company outcomes, protecting their time and making decisions as if they own it. Those who excel with this attitude are well rewarded.

Building an intentional company culture requires more of your leadership team than stocking the beer fridge and christening the ping-pong table. It’s an active process of using proven best practices from other successful companies to recruit the right people, inspire them on the job, and keep them focused on the company’s priorities.

You already reinvented the wheel once. When it comes to your company culture, don’t be afraid to use a practice you like to create a workplace you love.

Originally published on UpStart.

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