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Grow or Die #6: Culture Matters

Without a deliberate focus on growth, you will inevitably watch your company deteriorate. It’s a stark reality founders have to face — if your company isn’t growing, it’s dying. And this necessary growth hinges not only on your strategies and structures but also on your company’s culture.

Culture goes beyond having a pleasant work environment. It's the driving force behind your team's cohesion, motivation, and performance. An organization with a weak culture will encounter problems like disengagement, high turnover, and ultimately, business decline.

Throughout our Grow or Die series, we’ve explored how you can channel your efforts and energy toward growth so your team (and your company) can focus, align, and thrive. My last post centered on the importance of a Compelling Why, your organization’s purpose, passion, and/or just cause. This Compelling Why has a certain gravitational pull that draws people to your organization, but not all people will be the right people for your company. It all depends on the culture you want to build to keep your organization growing rather than dying.

My decades of experience as a business coach, investor, CEO, and founder have continuously reaffirmed my belief that a commitment to shared Core Values and a strong, agreements-based culture that fosters high-trust relationships with all your Ideal Stakeholders are the essential ingredients associated with starting, building, and scaling an enduring company.

Core Values as the Key to Culture

A thriving culture is dependent upon a clear and essential set of company Core Values that describe the behaviors of all your Ideal Team Members and, even better, the typical behaviors of all your Ideal Stakeholders. By establishing, constantly communicating, and living in alignment with a set of Core Values, we create an environment where everyone works with our values in mind as we collectively strive toward common goals.

But culture goes far deeper than those things. While your company’s Core Values, such as excellence, respect, and humility, may seem simple at the surface, you should also consider what those words mean for you and your Senior Leadership Team (SLT). Why is excellence, for example, so important? What will you do when team members don’t live up to the agreements associated with what you believe about excellence? Your answers to questions like these are what build your unique company culture — the culture that will hopefully draw in Ideal Team Members who can help to make your Vision a reality.

At Ninety, our Core Values are encapsulated in G-TRIBE:

  • Get Smart Stuff Done (GSSD): Focus on the smartest, best choice for our company, not just the fastest or easiest.
  • Team: Collaborate, trust, and support. Live up to our agreements.
  • Resilient: Respond wisely to adversity.
  • Inquisitive: Continuously seek mastery and learning.
  • Best: Strive to be the best version of ourselves.
  • Extra Mile: Balance work-life harmony while going the extra mile when needed.

Even several years after establishing our Core Values, they continue to reflect who we are and what we do. When considering Core Values for your company, remember that, as a foundation for your company culture, they should permeate every aspect of your organization, from hiring and onboarding to performance evaluations and daily interactions.

By making your Core Values explicit, coherent, and resonant to your people at all levels of the organization, you create a culture that’s ready to withstand the challenges of business growth.

Here are some examples of how you can create a culture that aligns with your Core Values:

  • Hiring and Onboarding: Recruit individuals who embody your Core Values. During the interview process, ask questions related to your Core Values to find people who align with what your organization upholds. Incorporate Core Values into the onboarding process to further cement this element of your culture from day one.
  • Quarterly Discussions: Integrate Core Values into your Quarterly Discussions. At every Quarterly Discussion, in addition to discussing how well the team member completes their Rocks, To-Dos, and key performance indicators (KPIs), include a conversation about how well they embody the organization’s Core Values.
  • Recognition: Recognize and reward behaviors that reflect Core Values, reinforcing their importance. At Ninety, we call these “Core Values Shout-Outs,” and we make time for them at our biweekly “all-hands” meetings.
  • Decision-Making: Encourage your team to make decisions that align with your Core Values, even when it’s challenging. This consistency builds trust and integrity across and up and down your organization.
  • Daily Interactions: As the founder, ensure your own everyday interactions and behaviors reflect your Core Values. This creates a cohesive and supportive work environment where you show your team that you practice what you preach.

Leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping and sustaining culture. As a founder, your actions set the tone for the entire organization, so be deliberate about the culture you want to create and prioritize it every day. With that, you need to be willing to make difficult decisions to protect and preserve your culture, such as letting go of individuals who don’t fit.

Create a Culture of Trust with Agreements

Trust is essential to a strong culture that can weather the demands of business growth. When team members trust one another, they feel safe to speak up, engage in discussions, innovate, and more.

At Ninety, we view trust through three dimensions: character, competency, and connection. In high-trust companies, everyone in the organization shares a strong level of commitment because they’re so well aligned in each of these dimensions.A triangle has the word trust in the center and the words character, competency, and connection around the edges.

Build trust by creating a culture in which people form agreements instead of relying on micromanagement and unclear expectations. This approach lays a foundation for having a simple, honest conversation when someone doesn’t live up to their agreement. In those cases, it’s fair to ask, “I thought we had an agreement — did I miss something, or is there a reason you couldn’t follow through? Either way, let’s solve it together.” Talking it out this way will strengthen working relationships and foster more accountability.

Beyond accountability, people working in an agreements-based culture have the autonomy to make decisions and act within the boundaries of those agreements. Not only will holding people accountable help you build trust and reach your company goals faster but it will also allow the right people to be recognized when they do something great.

Finally, build trust with your team by communicating openly about company goals, challenges, and progress. Encourage and engage in hard conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable, because feedback is an essential part of growth. By modeling transparency, you improve communication and information-sharing among team members at all levels of your organization. This openness will help your team to speak out about what matters to them while increasing loyalty, engagement, and commitment.

Growing through the Levels of Culture

Growth places a lot of stress on your team, and without the right measures in place, your organization’s culture may suffer. Just as you’d build a detailed plan to transition your team to a new project management system, you should have a plan for strengthening your culture as your organization grows — especially if your culture isn’t where you’d like it to be to begin with.

At Ninety, one of the frameworks we use to think about, assess, and enhance trust and cultural health is based on the book Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright. They describe five levels of organizational culture:

  • Level One (L1) Culture: Life in L1 cultures is pretty terrible. Team members are not just angry — they’re hostile. That hostility is channeled toward all stakeholders, especially fellow teammates and the leadership team.
  • Level Two (L2) Culture: Life in L2 cultures is disorganized and chaotic. Innovation is nonexistent, accountability is rare, too many people are frantically reacting to threats, and urgency is only reserved for shutting things down at 5 p.m.
  • Level Three (L3) Culture: Life in L3 cultures is somewhat average. Every department is doing its own thing and may or may not be competing with other departments for resources, attention, and respect. Growth happens, but it takes much more effort than it should. According to the authors, more than 50% of companies have L3 cultures.
  • Level Four (L4) Culture: Life in L4 cultures is pretty good. People work together for the good of the company. Leaders establish high-trust relationships, have little patience for politics or personal agendas, and are very open about what’s working and not working.
  • Level Five (L5) Culture: Life in L5 cultures is fantastic. Everyone has bought into the Vision and wants to be part of something special, so team members take pride in their work and go out of their way for the greater good. These organizations are 100% focused on making a positive impact on the world.

Is your organizational culture at the level you want it to be? If so, consider what measures you need to take to maintain that level as your organization grows. If not, consider what changes you need to make to get where you want to be.

Leveling up your culture is challenging but hugely rewarding. Your team’s input and buy-in are crucial for a successful transition, so involve them in the process as much as possible. Approach major changes with empathy, listening to your team’s concerns and communicating the reasons behind the changes. It’s especially important during times like this to show your Ideal Stakeholders that you genuinely care about them.

Remember, cultural transformations take time. Be patient as you navigate these shifts, and reinforce the culture you want with consistent action and communication.  

Culture as a Catalyst for Growth

Throughout our Grow or Die Series, we’ve discussed how important it is to maintain a growth mindset because if your company isn’t growing, its days are numbered. A strong, agreements-based culture is foundational for a healthy level of growth. It ensures alignment, fosters trust, and drives team member engagement. Culture is not a one-time initiative — it’s an ongoing commitment. You can strengthen your company’s culture with these five steps:

  1. Remain focused on your Core Values and Compelling Why.
  2. Create alignment by ensuring everyone in your organization understands and works toward the same goals.
  3. Build a culture of trust with transparency, accountability, and consistency.
  4. Navigate cultural shifts with empathy and openness.
  5. Model the behavior you want to see, and make sure your SLT does the same.

Culture is essential for ensuring your organization is always moving forward (and never backward). Invest in it, nurture it, monitor it, and watch as it propels your organization’s growth. A strong, agreements-based culture creates a company that people want to be a part of — team members, customers, partners, and investors alike. When you build a great culture, you build a great company.

Remember, a strong culture requires an ongoing commitment to living and working in alignment with each of your company’s Focus Filters. It’s the daily practice of showing up with and embodying your Core Values every day. When your culture is thriving, all of your people are working together for the good of the company. In the end, establishing a culture where every Ideal Stakeholder feels valued is the key to realizing your company’s (and each of your team member’s) full potential.

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