INVESTING IN CULTURE
Guest Blog Post by Josie Ann Lee
I imagine like other small business owners, “culture” wasn’t at the top of my to do list when we first opened our business in 2008. Survival was rooted in the basics. We needed a team and we needed clients. It was as simple as that. What our business felt like wasn’t something keeping me up at night. When my number one goal was breaking even, I was longing for the day that I was able to get better problems.
In October of 2014 that day presented itself. In truth, it had been a long and winding road leading up to our cultural tipping point. A lot of that journey was spent in equal parts of hope and denial. THE HOPE YEARS: In the early days of the business everything was exciting. It was exciting to be open, exciting to meet new teammates, exciting to set up the business, talk about the business, and work in the business. That energy carried us for about a year. As we continued to get deeper into the business our energy shifted from excitement to exhaustion. The business required all of me. Nearly every waking hour was spent at work, thinking about work, and trying to figure things out and move us forward. Thinking about the team, their stories and how they fit into our business voice and culture wasn’t something I focused on. I was too busy trying to figure out what that voice and culture was. I was too focused on defining who we were to even begin to think about how that should function. I was really hopeful that my love, my passion and my commitment to our business would infuse itself into everyone around me. What I failed to realize was that my exhaustion, my lack of setting expectations, and my voice were creating a culture that would take me years to correct. Great culture isn’t inherent in a company. It doesn’t just magically happen. It is a product of what you give to it. As a leader, it will mirror what you really are giving to your business and the team and not what you HOPE you are giving. Before I started our business, I met with other small business owners to ask for advice. I had more than one say to me, “Don’t be afraid to fire people. The team you have is really important.” As solid as this advice is, it is a hard lesson to learn. I think it’s the hope factor that gets in the way. You want to believe that a person will change, that the team will grow together and that your company’s voice will find you. Hope makes you wait a little longer to make decisions. Hope makes you think that if you give a person or a problem a bit more time it will self correct. Hope, without proper action, can become a business and culture killer. Once you figure that out you have two choices:
- Deny it
- Change it.
THE DENIAL YEARS: I’d say it was late 2010 and early 2011 that I knew something wasn’t quite right. The business wasn’t gelling quite like I thought it would. I could sense it. I could feel it and I was certain there wasn’t much that could be done about it so I started to deny it with actions and words. I didn’t talk about the need to change, I didn’t change things. I dug into the day to day, started to worry more and pushed this problem off as long as I could.
With the growth of our team, I started looking at it differently. Instead of seeing it as a workplace that I was living in, I started to think about the type of workplace I was inviting others to be a part of. That shift in thinking was when the slow thaw from DENIAL to CHANGE started to take place. If I could go back and tell myself something–anything–it would be that by NOT dealing with a problem you end up dealing with a subset of at least 10 other problems. It multiplies and it’s not pretty. The excitement I spoke of earlier can quickly turn into resentment and anger.
Energy in the workplace is important and it’s measurable. Denying energy is changing and having a negative impact on your culture is detrimental to your company. It slows and can eventually stop the creation of the business you envision. The business will grow into a business you don’t recognize and one you don’t want to be a part of. As a small business owner, it’s hurtful. You look at the business you just poured your heart and soul into and wonder, “Why?”.
INVESTING IN CHANGE: When we started to really focus on changing our culture, I could feel the energy shift back. Everything was exciting again. I wanted to capitalize on that while leaning on the lessons we’ve already learned. I shared with our team that this would be a long process, it was going to take a lot of work and that we weren’t going to be hopeful. I firmly believe a company can be encouraging and inspiring while not being hopeful and so I spoke to that.
We did as many things as we could to change our culture without changing people. We sought guidance. We found our voice. We practiced our voice. We focused on our teams, their stories, and our future. We changed our collective language. We wrote visions. And we shared all of this with whoever would listen.
As we started to talk more about culture and what it meant to be a part of our team, I found there were three types of reactions.
- Teammates who were inspired and excited.
- Teammates who listen and nod
- Teammates who roll their eyes and bitch.
I started to define this as inspiring, neutral and distracting. A business culture can survive and thrive with inspiring and neutral teammates. However, it only takes one distracting teammate to undo all the effort the rest of you are putting in.
One of the #1 reasons I denied our culture issues and didn’t put in the work to change it was that our business was doing great! We were growing 20% a quarter, we were profitable, we were getting ready to expand and all of this made it easier to look the other way. I knew the last piece of this puzzle was that we had to make some team change and I knew team changes meant our sales #s would suffer. My #1 job is to make sure our business is healthy. For a long time we put the health of our business profits over the health of our team. We had to think about the work into our culture as an investment and not a cost. That’s not as easy as it sounds.
TIPPING POINT: One of my small business coaches shared with me the idea of our tipping point. She told me the day would come when everything we worked so hard on would either take or we’d have to fold. I could feel the momentum building and was acutely aware that our tipping point was getting closer. I started to plan for it, I had a time frame and a game plan in place and it started with our annual team meeting.
We themed our meeting “The Road To Happy” and then spent time with the team talking about our collective stories, past, present and future. We knew that this would speak to the team we wanted to continue to build our future around and would, honestly, possibly annoy the others. We knew we wanted to be true to our team voice and make sure that we did what was in the best interest of everyone. We wanted those teammates that weren’t the best fit for us to find the company that made them happy.
We put so much time, effort and plan into our 3 hour team meeting. We felt so great about the road we were taking and knew this would be a game changer. As we planned the meeting, I kept reminding the team that our goal was to inspire the team that wanted to be inspired all the while being honest and setting ourselves up for changes. This was made a bit easier for us when our 2 distractor teammates showed up over an hour late to the meeting without so much as an acknowledgment or apology. They had lived up to their distractor roles.
Our 3 month plan to change team suddenly moved into overdrive. We knew the tipping point had arrived. We couldn’t spend time, energy and talent on an amazing team meeting to have it disrupted and disrespected by the teammates we built the meeting around. We were either going to root our culture, or deny this issue and hope it’d get overlooked. We decided to root it.
What happened over the course of the next 3 weeks is one of the things I’m most proud of in my role of leader. Having our 2 distractors leave the team on good terms and without being ‘fired’, proved to be the biggest test, risk and reward I’ve experienced in my time in business. If I look at the books from the day we started to focus on culture to today, I can honestly tell you it’s had a great financial impact on our company. Overall, we worked with integrity and sincerity to end relationships with 6 teammates during this time period. I can tell you the “cost” of changing our culture has been upwards of $50,000. But that’s not the story. I can’t feel $50,000. $50,000 doesn’t have energy. It doesn’t make me proud, or make me laugh, or teach me lessons. $50,000 is just a number on a book.
I like to think of that number and our time spent as an investment into our business. It’s made us better. We’ve changed our hiring practices, team communication, and management approach. We took a risk that a lot of small businesses aren’t willing to take. We were willing to take it because we didn’t see it as a risk – we saw it as a necessity. We’ve already seen a great return our our cultural investment. It’s easier to run the business because we know who we are, we’re proud of our voice, and we’re excited to invite people to be on our team. The forced pause has allowed us time to really examine how we want to grow. Our energy is full of excitement again, we’re inspiring each other and best of all – we’re not hopeful. We’re living our culture.