People & Leadership

Why company culture matters in a small business

Before COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks in early 2020, many businesses were making large strides towards success. January was a month of planning and plotting goals, laying out the framework for a new decade. Only a few months in, a massive monkey wrench was thrown into the mix.

For categories like liquor sales, grocery stores, and telehealth services, the increased demand for goods and services worked out in their favor. Other sectors, such as hotels, restaurants, and bars, witnessed their entire business models become no longer feasible. According to a Business Insider report, unemployment hit 14.7% by April 2020, with 20.5 million jobs lost in that single month.

For employees who held on long enough to see small positive changes in 2021, the lasting shadow cast by the dark months of the prior year are reflected in their behavior and their workplace environments.

As I write my post today, companies, large and small, are trying to decide on the future of their workforces. Should they bring employees back into the office full-time, allow them to work remotely, or offer a hybrid model (e.g., three days in the office, and two days remote)?

For millions of people, remote work has provided major benefits to their lives while closing the work/life balance chasm. In numerous surveys, employees enthusiastically talk about not having the stress of a long commute while being able to spend more time with their families and loved ones. They also point out the increased efficiencies in time management and productivity.

However, not every employee is for working remotely. The same studies that shared the upside of having a remote team also noted that working from home can create added stress, decrease productivity in some cases, and further separate employees from the rest of their teams.

Smart companies, looking to retain their best employees and keep them happy, are focused on honing their internal company culture. In my opinion, a winning company culture is made up of four distinct parts: Vision, commitment, discipline, and accountability.

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It all starts with vision

The CEO or business owner must seamlessly embed their vision for the company into the minds of employees. The vision must be clear, concise, and committed to company’s principles. It’s the same message that companies share with their customers consumers via marketing and branding campaigns.

It’s also the blurb at the beginning of a job description that pulls in creative and talented people who can bring that message to life. A shared vision is the anchor that keeps everyone tethered when times get tough, and problems inevitably get in the way. Last year serves as a perfect example.

Key Takeaway: When the company ship is going through rough and uncharted waters, everyone on board must be on the same page regarding life preservers.

Commitment vs. motivation

Without firm commitment to a company’s vision, it loses credibility and control starts to slip. A business owner can’t just “talk the talk,” they must lead by example. Whether the goal is to help people, make a saturated market more diverse, or provide quality products to deserving communities, every company decision should bring the team closer to their common goal.

When milestones are achieved, everyone on the team celebrates, and then prepares for the next one. When obstacles present themselves, the team works together to get around it…up, over, under, or through. Many people are “motivated” by the idea of success, but they lose enthusiasm when the first obstacle appears. A successful leader knows that commitment will reveal itself in tough times; that’s when they know if people have bought into their vision.

Key Takeaway: Long-term success requires commitment not just motivation.

Discipline vs. faith

In Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, he interviewed Admiral James Stockdale who served many years as a POW during the Vietnam War. Collins asked Stockdale how he survived when so many others did not. His answer became known as The Stockdale Paradox. He said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

When the pandemic struck, the entire global economy was upended. All our dreams and goals for 2020 and the entire decade seemed to go up in flames. What were we expected to do?

For companies that had a strong vision and commitment from their employees, it meant quickly rewriting their plans for 2020. What parts were still intact, what parts were broken but salvageable, and what parts would need to be completely rewritten. For example, all in-person meetings and events were off the table for the foreseeable future. Many companies pivoted and immediately started to implement a digital approach to staying connected to everyone in their ecosystems.

Investments into video equipment were made, tutorials were viewed, and employees embraced the “new normal” for 2020. Companies where employees weren’t on the same page as their leaders struggled with moving to a digital world. They lost too much time and resources because they couldn’t pivot and ultimately went out of business.

Key Takeaway: Much like commitment, discipline is an emergency break that stops the company car from sliding down a hill; It can be harsh, but it is irreplaceable. Discipline, like commitment, also reveals itself when confronting “brutal facts of one’s current reality, whatever they might be.”  

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Last, but not least, accountability

It is the glue that binds a successful company culture together because it involves trust, vulnerability, and teamwork. Individually, all team members must be cognizant of the vision, they must be committed to upholding it, and disciplined enough to stay on course. At a team level, employees must trust each other, be vulnerable to corrective criticism, and check their egos at the door. When leaders hold themselves and their employees accountable, the levels of performance, productivity and efficiency are almost always raised.

Key Takeaway: Accountability can measurably increase the chances for success…which reinforces a positive company culture. Almost everyone wants to play on a winning team.

As we go forward, and the U.S. economy fully reopens, remind your team about their responsibilities and expectations for the second half of 2021. Share your vision with them and show your commitment to them. Then, it comes down to successfully executing your plan. Carpe diem!