Starting a new business is a wonderful thing. It’s exhilarating, satisfying and inspiring. 

Most of us start with the best intentions – communicating well and being inclusive, appreciative and grateful. We take all the values we have longed for in old jobs and tell ourselves that we will never make those mistakes. 

We are convinced that our businesses will be different. 

Then things get stressful. Sales slow. Cash gets tight. And there are always so many more things that we want to do but can’t get done.  

This is the point at which it’s easy to let things slip. And it’s easy to pull away from what you are trying to create and slip into old habits. We ping off emails too quickly, we forget to keep teams informed and we don’t make time to listen to people. All of a sudden we find our intentions are just that. 

Why it matters

It is estimated that a rich company culture can reduce turnover by more than 50% (source: Gallup), prevent unethical behaviour and massively increase employee loyalty (source: Columbia University). A great culture makes it much easier to attract good people too. This can be of huge financial benefit to a growing organisation. That’s why so many large companies seek to be on the best companies to work for lists.

Your reputation speaks for itself when you are a good employer with a great culture. Your people are nicer for customers to deal with because they are happier and often more engaged (which means how committed they are). They are more likely to go the “extra mile” all the time. 

But running a business is hard! 

And it’s even harder to do when you’re under immense pressure to pay bills and, later on, pay people. So how can you make sure you develop your culture from day one?

Here are our top tips…

1. Identify your brand values inside and out

It is widely perceived that brand is for external consumption but it is important to remember that you have an internal brand on which your culture should be built. This is the one that your employees will talk to their friends about – all of whom are potential customers! 

We recommend that businesses hold a branding session very early on in their journey that identifies how you want to be known, how you will speak (internally and externally) and what your values are. 

This will enable your brand to be emanated from the inside out. 

For example, if your brand has a “customer is god” ethos, your internal culture must value customers above all. Internally this might mean sharing positive customer experiences, a total commitment to service and no negative customer talk – ever. 

This should be revisited regularly as it will change as you develop but it will keep you on track and remind you of why you set out to build your business in the first place. 

2. Name good and bad behaviours from day one

Recognising “good” and “bad” behaviours and stating what they are from day one will have a positive impact on cultural development. It is important that you and your teams know what to expect. 

When we developed our tone of voice at That Works For Me, we specified positive words that we would use and captured a list of banned words too as they are the antithesis of our tone of voice. They include words such as CV and candidate because we are not a recruiter. When people join our business we tell them about these words and everyone is good at calling out when someone uses them. Doing this has become part of our culture and it means our language is reflective of what we are trying to build. 

This can work positively too. Something as simple as taking time at the beginning and end of every meeting to see how people are feeling, for example. This embeds a caring culture where people feel heard (as long as they are genuinely listened to).

3. Talk about your culture

It’s important that people know what your culture is and what you are trying to build. Starting this early on and communicating it to people even before they join your business is imperative to successfully creating the culture you want. 

Your culture should be established enough so that people feel comfortable challenging each other when they are displaying behaviours that do not fit with your business culture. It should be an ongoing conversation, not a thing left to its own devices. 

4. Test your culture

New joiners are the perfect time to test whether your culture is what you think it is. Take the opportunity to see your business culture through a fresh pair of eyes and understand where you are now. 

Ask your new recruit about their experience so far. How have people treated them? Are they clear on what merits positive behaviours? How does it feel to be part of your organisation?

Whether you do this through conversation or survey is up to you, it probably depends on the culture around how open to listening you are as a leader!

5. Reward people who embody your culture

Your hiring process should take into account the culture you are looking to build in your business. That means finding people to join your business that will enrich your culture, not take it in a negative direction. This is especially important in a small business where every individual has a significant impact. 

Positive reinforcement is an age-old management tool but one that works. Where people are living and breathing your culture, their attitude is on point and they are a pleasure to work with, make sure they know that. Tell them why and do it publicly so that other people have the opportunity to replicate these behaviours. 

Find ways to reward that are reflective of how you operate. Money can be tight in the early days so think about little things like recognition in a meeting or a social post that is seen by customers. Even the shiest of people love public praise really. 

6. Lead by example

Whilst some would argue that good sub-cultures below management are what determines what it’s like to work for your business, this is not something afforded to small businesses and startups. Therefore nothing is more important than the leadership team role modelling the right cultural behaviours and setting expectations. 

In our business, which is all about working flexibly, that means that we would never arrange a meeting at school pick up time; we only have regular meetings on days when everyone has the children in childcare, and it is totally acceptable to send emails at all hours of the day. These actions are reflective of our flexible working culture. 

In all businesses, it is the leaders’ job to embed great behaviours in keeping with the culture you are trying to build from the beginning. If you do something that could negatively impact your culture, make sure you publicly apologise and call out why it was a problem. 

A great culture at work makes us want to be at work and isn’t that what we all want?