For those that don’t live and breathe HR like I do, a Culture Document is the clear definition and publication of a company’s culture.  Of the 10,000 mistakes I have made since founding my last company WorkMarket, I believe that one of the largest was waiting eight years to create a Culture Document.  

My mistake was powerfully highlighted as we went through confirmatory diligence during our purchase in 2018 by ADP, the $60B HR giant.  During the process, a prominent ADP executive said to me, “When I ask your team what WorkMarket does, I get a different answer each time.”

That hurt.  I thought they responded as I did when asked that question. It’s a dangerous assumption, and one that many company founders and leaders make. 

The Culture Document

Companies start as a cult of personality based on their founders.  And that works when it’s a small team in one room (or zoom!).  However, as the team grows, and you lose the ability to talk to every person everyday, the culture needs to be defined explicitly or people will make their own assumptions.  It’s your job as a leader to make sure your team understands who the company is (your definition), why you are here (your purpose) and where you are going (your mission).

But these are only step one in building a company culture.  And writing all the steps down in a shareable document, that is updated as you evolve, is vital to your hiring, your growth and your success.  Companies where everyone is rowing in the same direction, and everyone understands “the what and the why” but can figure out “the how” for themselves, are inevitably more likely to get to their destination.

First we must start with defining culture.  It’s one of the terms people struggle to define, but they know it when they see it. I view culture as “the definition, purpose, mission and values of a company as reflected in its policies, behaviors, people and place.”

The Big Four & Their Support

Start with those Big Four: definition, purpose, mission and values.  Your Definition is the one sentence of who you are and what you do.  Your Purpose is why you are here, what gets everyone out of bed in the morning to come in and work their butts off.  Your Mission is where you are going, your North Star.  Your Values are the six to eight core guiding principles of the company. These Big Four should be on the walls, should be repeated at every company meeting.  Repeat it again and again…when people start complaining about hearing it too often, you are halfway there!

However, the Big Four are meaningless unless you are clear about the policies and behaviors that support them, and how you actually run your business in alignment with The Big Four.  What is your policy on meetings; who can call them, do they have set agendas?  Your company’s approach to meetings says a lot about your culture; is it aligned with your values?  How you promote, hire, and communicate. How you make decisions and share information.  How you hold company gatherings.  These can be set with formal policies or a pattern of behavior, but all have to support and be consistent with the Big Four otherwise your culture is just words on a wall.

The most important alignment is what behaviors you expect from your people.  What does it mean to be a team member?  Do we want people constantly learning and growing, or just doing their job well and going home?  Are they questioning things, or just jumping when told to jump?  How do they disagree with a decision?  What do we expect from our managers?  Are they efficiency drivers or coaches?  Are they transparent?  How do they give feedback?  Being clear about what it means to be a team member and backing that up with your hiring and promotion practices is vital to making your Big Four come to life.

The same is true about your space.  If collaboration is a value, yet you provide no space for people to collaborate, you are not aligned.  If transparency is a value, but your space is offices with closed doors, you are not promoting a value.  It is vital to keep in mind the Big Four in everything you do, so they are reinforced and your team really lives them.

If you promote someone that is not a good team player, and teamwork is a value, then your policies and behaviors don’t align, and people will lose trust.  If you cut corners to get a deal done, and integrity is a value, you are not aligned.  If you value diversity and inclusion but have no D&I policies when it comes to hiring and promotion, then do you really value D&I?  

Building a company is hard.  Statistically, you start out with a 90% chance of failure.  It’s your job and your team’s job, to increase your odds of success in every way you can.  Making sure everyone understands who the company is, why they are here, where the company is going and the company’s values, massively increases the odds of success. 

This is all the more important now as teams are more distributed than before and a well refined culture is one of the “glues” you need to bind a disparate team together.  And remember this is a living, breathing document that should be updated at least once a year.

If you are a leader, get to work on a Culture Document today.  If you are a team member, step up and help leadership create one.  The Culture Document is vital to maximizing your and your company’s chance for success.