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What’s your company culture?

Sarah Dunwell on the importance of understanding and preserving your founding culture

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” Stephen R Covey

After four years of being in business, we have just employed a new member of staff.  Not the first one, we have about 60 others, but a new and note-worthy member of my management team. She holds the title of director of people and culture. It sounds like a bit of a lofty title, but it’s one that I think puts the finger on something that’s really important in any organisation – culture.

She does lots of things: recruitment, training and HR – but most importantly of all she helps us make sure that everyone in team Create “gets” our culture.

You may have been on those courses in health and safety training where the trainer asks the question, “Who in your workplace is responsible for health and safety?” Little clue here: the answer is always “I am”. Believe me, if that’s not your answer the trainer will ask the question over and over again until you get it. In the same way, the answer to the question of who is responsible for the culture in your business, no matter which member of staff you are talking to, should always be “I am”.

One of the great things about being a start-up is that family feel, the feeling that we are all in this together and that what we are doing together really matters. It is that spirit that drives excellence and innovation in a lot of businesses, but that spirit is so easily lost as the business grows.

After 10 years of operating and with a staff team running into dozens, the danger is that people can start to look around and realise that something of that spark that made you special has gone out. Something of the zest and passion has been lost.

That is why at this early stage in my business growth I wanted someone to stand alongside me to be the visible ambassadors for our unique culture; someone who asks the irritating ‘why’ questions, challenges us all and asks constantly if our decisions are in keeping with the culture of what we believe about people and about businesses.

The heart of every great new business is often the heart of those first few people who started it. It is their vision and passion which gives you the potential to be truly the best business in the world – a game-changing business. Culture is always about “keeping the main thing the main thing”, and if we lose sight of that we lose the thing that made the business special in the first place.

You and your team need to understand the culture you’ve created in order to attract and retain the right people as the business grows; and valuing, nurturing, and keeping your culture alive is the main thing.

Here are my top three tips for safeguarding your culture:

Keep the main thing the main thing: Constantly reiterate your culture in ways that are easy to remember. Stories told can often serve as examples of the culture you want to see. Tell people in meetings, to staff in passing, in emails etc.

If you can’t change the people, change the people: Your people will either support or oppose the culture. Recruit them slowly, with wise courtship, induct them thoroughly and make sure that they are on board every day.

Trust your team: Don’t think that you are the only one who believes in the culture you are building. Allow other people to contribute and to bring a slant on things that you don’t have. They will become peer ambassadors of your company’s culture even more than you are.

Sarah Dunwell is the founder of the award-winning social enterprise the Create Foundation, an organisation which provides training and employment opportunities to marginalised or vulnerable people. For more information, visit: www.createfoundation.co.uk

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