Culture and Success, A Chicken and Egg Problem

This past week, our CRO John Tough provoked a conversation over email about our success at Choose Energy and he’d noted a change in our culture over the last few months.

Culture is something which had always been top of mind for us, but lately something had been clicking. As any good leader does, John often pushes me to think deeper about trends within the business and asked me to think about why “culture” never comes up in our conversations anymore, was it overrated or was it now engrained in our company?
I am a huge believer in culture, mission, and values as a company so my answer as the latter. Below are a few quick thoughts what makes for a quick transformation from average / non-existant culture to great culture.

Early hiring is crucial and eliminate bad culture swiftly and ruthlessly

Great culture begins with the very first hire. I know you’ve likely read this cliche over and over again but there’s a reason. Think about this, your first hire likely hires 3–7 people, those 3–7 people hire at least 1–2 people and so on. If the first hire poisons the well, it could be poisoned until the very last person on that hiring tree is let go. Which leads me to this, hiring early is CRUCIAL.

If early and new hires do not exhibit core values and dedication to the mission they must be let go quickly, if no action is taken it’s likely one of two things will happen: 1)since bad culture is evident, the employee is promoted because they “have been there the longest” putting them in position to influence other employees and their new hires, and setting the expectation that time = value, 2) the employee isn’t promoted but believes they should be only based on their “time served” and begins to spread the word inside the company that “hard-work” isn’t appreciated or rewarded. Both terrible outcomes that compound an initial mistake. Take action, remove bad apples as it is likely they are just as unhappy at work as you are with their performance.

If you are constantly talking about culture, it’s likely because you believe it’s not there

Think about your goals as an individual. Do think about your big core values and mission everyday? Or is it a subconscious effort to take action based on them? For me, it’s the latter, I know the values and goals that drive my decision making are but I don’t repeat them to everyone I know over and over. Instead, I work on taking action towards them then evaluate periodically for progress.

Companies should be very similar, core values are great but if you are hiring people who truly believe in them they are not something that must be repeated everyday. Instead, those people will set quarterly goals that are set in your mission and act on them accordingly.

Establish one main, clear goal and march towards it with every action, rather than words

Speaking of action, it is ALWAYS the number one driver of company culture. It’s easy to hang a poster that lists something like “we put customers first, be relentless, be resourceful, have a sense of humor” etc… But what actions are your leaders taking to show employees they live these values?

Establishing one clear goal can help companies with culture problems begin to build one they can be proud of. For example, if you set a goal of profitability as some startups have been lately, pick a metric that you believe drives towards that goal. We’ve done something similar with conversion on our product team because it lowers CPC and improves revenue both leading to better unit economics.

We took action immediately on this goal, posting a real-time metrics board in the center of the office where anyone walking by must face the reality of our performance. Lately, performance has been amazing, so we added a gong to celebrate wins throughout the day. These little things might seem silly but the impact on camaraderie has been immeasurable.

You have to lead by example, culture is set by leadership and there are no short cuts

Similar to taking action, leadership leads by example. This not only applies to the values of the company but also the common traits of leadership. Leaders are almost always curious, relentless in work-ethic, good listeners, and ambitious in goal setting. Good leaders have most, if not all of these qualities, if not it’s unlikely they can spearhead or drive the company mission.

Leaders who aren’t relentless in problem solving, listening to the employees on the front lines, and must have things done their way are unprepared to lead a company to the results needed to fortify great culture.

There are a multitude of paths to creating great company culture.  No matter where your company is on the growth curve, remember culture starts early (there’s no bigger reward than setting the foundation for a successful business) and it must be LIVED not just spoken about or hung on a wall in the office.

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