Importance of Company Culture in Small Businesses

I recently joined BCRS. At the time of writing, I’ve been here for just over three months. Prior to joining, I was with a company for seven years. That company to me was the cultural equivalent of a warm and fluffy pair of slippers. I knew everyone’s name. I knew who I could call with questions. I was well-supported, and I knew all the rules both written and unwritten. Moving to BCRS meant settling into a new company culture and finding myself with a different pair of slippers. (Although I should add, I’ve found these ones to be very warm and fluffy too).

Culture sits at the top of the list of intangibles that are so important to businesses. There isn’t a cultural target; a figure we can measure and put in a slide deck that says: “we’ve got a great culture”.

Culture is a feeling.

It defines whether people like working for you or not. Whether people come into work dreading it or whether they want to be there. More than that, as someone who has just gone through the process of changing jobs, it’s the thing that I cared most about when interviewing for the role.

Can I fit in here? Will I be valued? Will I enjoy working here?

These were all questions I wanted to answer before switching jobs and they are all defined by the culture you create.

What kind of culture do you want to create? How do you want the slippers to feel when a new employee puts them on? Are they warm and fluffy or more utilitarian? Do they have a supportive back or are they loose? (I promise this is the last time I will use this slipper metaphor).

Many of the companies we support at BCRS are still defining their culture and so below are some of the top tips I’ve gathered from our team about making your culture tip top.

Lead by example

An obvious, but important tip. I’m not just talking about living the culture you want to have (although that is very important). I’m also talking about how you back your words up with actions. Authenticity is important, but a lack of authenticity is noticed by the wider team and can be toxic. Most people don’t strive to be inauthentic, but inadvertently do not follow through on their words and end up creating an environment where leaders aren’t trusted.

Fortunately, the opposite is also true. If you follow through on your words, you can quickly gain respect. I recently met a BCRS customer who we had helped with a management buyout. They had been working for the business for years, but now they were calling the shots. One of their first changes was to increase workers’ pay so that it was equal among the team. Disparities in pay had grown naturally, but the new owners wanted a clean slate, even if it meant a hit to their profits.

That one act gave everyone an indication of how they were going to run the company. Employees got to feel good about a higher wage, but also understood that the new ownership were going to take steps to ensure fairness. It’s hard not to be inspired by that kind of behaviour.

Kindness goes a long way, especially during difficult times. Running a business can be hard, but the people who work for you also have their own lives with their own stresses. Acknowledging that isn’t a weakness, but a strength. See James Timpson’s great article for more pointers on this.

Hire the right people

Yes, you can lead from the front, but the culture will also develop when you’re not there. That’s why it’s so important to hire the right people.

It’s long been said that cultural fit is what you should look for in new employees. What they don’t know you can teach (within reason), but if they don’t fit the culture its much harder to bring them around. I would argue though, in small businesses where the culture is still fluid, it’s even more important.

I was once at a retirement doo for someone who was one of the first employees in a business that went on to employ hundreds. The CEO at the time gave an impassioned speech in which he acknowledged that much of the culture of the business had come from his first ten hires.

If you’re in a business where you’ve not hired ten people yet, getting those early hires right can define your culture for the years to come. Therefore, you don’t just want to hire someone who fits the culture as it is today, but also fits the culture you would like it to become.

Write it down (carefully)

There is an understandable feeling that once you start writing cultural rules down, it stops being organic and starts being… forced. Be wary of this, but that doesn’t mean you should stop all attempts to put into words what it means to work for your company.

Focus on short sharp values that quickly put into words how you want the culture to look. These values should not be aspirational but should make sense within the business. If your values are to be “caring” and “respectful”, none of your employees are going to disagree with you that they would like to work in a disrespectful, uncaring environment, but writing them down and printing them on the walls has an element of the self-fulfilling. It’s a subtle reminder than can go a long way.

And on that point, get your employees involved in the process. When values are top-down they rarely hold significance, but if your employees are involved in setting them, they mean much more. You should revisit these regularly as staff turnover and your organisation grows so they stay relevant to the people who work there.

In summary…

A good company culture isn’t something you can measure, but it is something small businesses should strive to create. The most important tip of all however, is to know when to leave it alone. If your company culture is good already, spending too much time defining could just make it clinical and corporate. Leaving it organic is a perfectly valid option in this case. But when a culture doesn’t meet the company’s goal, it’s worth investing time to address this. Go back to basics, why did the team choose to join? Define a common purpose and build the culture around that.

If you’ve got any tips on building a good culture please leave them in the comments below.

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