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How To: Create a Culture

What makes your employees want to be their best?
Emma Johnson

It’s not about setting up pingpong tables in the break room, or buying a few beanbag chairs. A company’s culture is something much deeper, and it affects every facet of the business.

Whether cultivated or not, every business has a character all its own, says Marissa Levin, head of communications firm Information Experts and the author of "My Company ROCKS!" Eight Secrets to a Growth-Driven Culture That Keeps Employees Happy & Engaged. The key to building a successful company, Levin says, is deliberately identifying and committing to the organization’s mission, vision and core values.

“Once you establish culture, every single decision is made through that lens,” Levin says, including hiring decisions and the qualities sought in partners.

“You have to make sure everyone in the company is rowing in the same direction,” Levin says. “Likewise, if clients introduce chaos into my company, that does not serve me, because it does not serve my employees. Every part of my company culture comes back to my employees.”

Nancy Mobley, CEO of the human resources consulting firm Insight Performance, says many organizations set out with a clearly established culture, but good intentions are lost in the process of building the business. “Culture is always the DNA of a company. Unfortunately, it is often the unspoken DNA,” says Mobley, who authored Powerhouse: Creating the Exceptional Workplace. “Most business leaders have a clear perception of what they want to build, but often they don’t take time to articulate that.”

Identify the qualities you want in your company. These questions can get you started:

  • What are the organization’s core values?
  • What are your goals?
  • What type of work environment will help you reach your goals?
  • What kind of relationship do you want with everyone who touches your business: employees, vendors, customers and the community?
  • How will you measure these elements?
  • How will you hold your employees—and yourself—accountable?

Be wary of presenting perks and other employee benefits as culture items. In the event of a downturn, these items may need to be eliminated, yet a company with a truly strong culture can still thrive, Levin says. “There is nothing more demoralizing than layoffs,” Levin says. “However, employees who are truly committed to a company’s culture can withstand having a perk taken away.”


Tom Walter

Chief Culture Officer and founding partner

Company: Tasty Catering, Chicago

Culture and Results: Creating a highly engaged workforce has led to low turnover and awards that include Crain’s Chicago No. 1 Best Place to Work in Illinois and the Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics.

In 2007 we had been in business for 16 years and were very successful. But our millennial employees came to us and said that if we didn’t change our culture, they would leave. I was getting older, and I knew that if I wanted this business to have more value than just myself, I had to attract new, younger leadership. We had to change or die.

The first step was for the entire company to read Jim Collins’ Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, which gave everyone an understanding that leading companies have outstanding cultures. Our young people created a council on culture—which still meets monthly—with the aim of identifying our ethos.

Over the course of six months, they really turned the company around by implementing seven core values:

  1. We are always moral, ethical and legal.
  2. We treat everyone with respect.
  3. We seek quality in everything we do.
  4. We uphold high customer service standards.
  5. We have a competitive determination to be the best.
  6. We maintain individual disciplines.
  7. We allow freedom and responsibility within individual disciplines.


These values are read at every meeting of three people or more, and a copy of this list is visible in every room in our building—we really refer to it when making decisions. For example, our chief financial officer once announced he wanted to launch a new muffin business and needed $85,000. Before, I would have thought he was nuts. But he pointed to our value list, and he was right: His discipline was to ensure our financial viability and profitability, and our culture dictated he have the freedom to make that decision. I was skeptical, but called the banker and made it happen. Today those muffins are a multimillion-dollar business.

Another time, we entertained the idea of getting into the high-end event business, in addition to our core focus on corporate catering, but we abandoned the idea when we realized that we could not meet our fifth value, to be the best at what we do. We are the best in the world at corporate catering, but would not be the best at weddings.

The numbers system works for us—employees often refer to it—if someone doesn’t like how I’m talking to them, they might say, “Tom, are you adhering to No. 2?”


Brad Kriser

Founder and CEO

Company: Kriser’s, a national pet store specializing in all-natural products

Culture and Results: A commitment to caring for animals and a work environment dedicated to open communication and mutual support allowed rapid growth to 23 locations nationwide by the end of 2013.

In the pet retail business, customers can tell whether you truly care for the welfare of their animals. Since we launched in 2006, hiring the right people has been central to the culture. In the interview process, we ask a lot of questions about how people feel about their pets. We want to get a sense that these are truly animal lovers—not just pet owners.

Our culture is one of open communication, and of caring for one another as we do our customers. To nurture this culture, I personally spend a week with the staff before opening each of our stores. We talk through various customer interactions and I emulate how I want things to be handled.

We have a lot of animal-related programs. Employees can bring their dogs to work, of course, and we offer them discounted pet insurance. Full-time workers are eligible for quarterly bonuses, which we match with a donation to a rescue organization or shelter of the employee’s choice. Those who have been with the company for at least five years can take a two-week paid sabbatical to work at a rescue organization or animal shelter of their choice.

To encourage communication, our managers have a set-your-own vacation policy, and through our peer-to-peer bonus program, all workers can nominate a colleague for a cash prize and companywide acknowledgement. Every single day we have employees participating in an email exchange of new ideas and information. A sales associate might share tips on selling a new line of cat food, or someone will ask what to feed a Yorkie who has a specific eye condition, for example.

Every single staff member has my cellphone number and is encouraged to call me for any reason. I love it when my cellphone rings and someone shares a new idea about the business or even if they have a complaint. When employees feel that their voices are heard, it raises morale. They are motivated to work harder, and that is great for business.


John DeHart

Co-Founder and CEO

Company: Nurse Next Door, a home-care franchise

Culture and Results: Valuing people and making a difference has created an excellent reputation that keeps recruiting costs at zero and turnover at 15 to 17 percent (compared with the 70 percent industry standard).

We started 11 years ago, and grew really, really quickly. By our fourth year we had 1,000 employees, but one day I walked into the head office and realized we had a culture I did not like. I heard a manager yelling at a caregiver for being late and overheard a customer service representative putting up every possible barrier to helping a client.

That was July 16, 2006, the day we fired the majority of the 25 people in our main office with a vow to turn things around. We established our core values, which are simple: Admire people, wow customers, find a better way, and be passionate about making a  difference.

These steer every decision we make, starting with hiring. Before, we hired entirely by expertise or talent—now it is a 50-50 split between expertise and culture fit.

Every morning we have a seven-minute huddle in the middle of our main office, where stories are shared from the field about employees exemplifying our core values. We have a monthly party that features one of those stories being chosen as a winner. Every week I send handwritten notes in the mail thanking some of our 3,000 employees for something they did. We have “flower bucks,” our internal currency, which can be used to buy various prizes at our quarterly events.

Our “Dreams Next Door” internal initiative asks employees to name a dream. In one instance, a call center employee dreamed of teaching English in South America for three months. So her colleagues donated their flower bucks, which she used to buy airline tickets, and we gave her time off work—underscoring our commitment to making a difference. Another employee simply dreamed of spending the holidays with her family on the other side of the country, so we used our frequent flier miles to buy her airline tickets and sent her home with gift cards for restaurants in her community.

Our culture builds a system of recognition, and celebrates our victories large and small. Establishing this culture has also been as much about keeping the leader—me—in line with our core values. I concentrate on goals, and once we achieve something, I’m on to the next thing. 

Post date: 
Sep 17, 2013


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