Thought Leadership

Culture Cultivation: How to Build It at New and Existing Organizations

by David Deitz

People hear me say it all the time: Culture is the single-most important element in the success of a company.

The blueprint to cultivate that culture, however, can vary widely as no one-size-fits-all solution exists. Today we’ll examine the differences between creating culture at a new company as opposed to an established one. While they are separate challenges, each presents a unique opportunity.

Organizational leaders might have to go about their culture-building initiatives differently in each case, but the prospective benefits can propel the company to its true potential and perhaps beyond. In either case, it begins with a strong foundation.

I liken building the culture of an organization to developing the foundation of a large building. Components such as concrete, metal, gravel, wood and weather-proofing materials each serve a singular function, but when you combine these critical pieces, it enables the foundation to become strong enough to support the weight of the building.

The strength of the cultural foundation is critical to supporting the structural edifice of the entire organization—not just in the early stages of the company’s growth, but for the years and decades to come. Here’s a look at some of the nuances of creating effective cultures at new and established companies:

A new company

Naturally, the primary advantage of creating a culture at a new company is that you can start from the ground up. No inherent flaws or biases exist within the workplace and you’re operating with a clean slate.

You can create the culture based upon any combination of components, but they have to be unique to your organization and designed to be the stabilizing pillar of support throughout the company. For instance, when we started Birchstone Residential in 2020, our leadership team identified more than 30 different key core values that we wanted to use in developing and building our organization.

But just like a concrete foundation, we identified the Top 5 Core Values that represented the most crucial components of our cultural foundation. While those must be identified on a company-by-company basis, my primary advice in identifying these building blocks is to make sure you stay true to yourselves as leaders and to stay authentic.

For instance, some have asked how to navigate a situation when a new hire seemed like a solid fit for the culture at the outset, but it turns out not to be the case. My response is that if you take proper measures on the front end by vetting the personal values of the candidate, you can avoid this possible pitfall. Asking the right questions during the interview process will enable you to unearth any potential concerns up front. I see core values from a simple perspective—either the person possesses them or they don’t. If they don’t possess them, then move on and find someone who does.

While establishing the culture is paramount at a new organization, maintaining it is another primary objective that should not be taken lightly. As a leader of any organization, you should see yourself as something of a cultural ‘gatekeeper’ who regularly monitors the behaviors of your teams to ensure the culture remains true to itself. When I am in meetings or interacting with people, and I feel us straying away from our core values, I will redirect us back to those values as our focal point in arriving at any company-centric decisions.

An established company

When a leader assesses the culture at an established company, it’s a different dynamic because the cultural characteristics—whether good or bad—already exist. If the cultural identity of your company is struggling, it’s time for an honest, full-scale evaluation.

Whether you are a new leader arriving at the company or one already with the company, you have to be willing to take an honest assessment of the culture and the health of the organization. Having to acknowledge any shortcomings might be a difficult first step, but leaders must be willing to make tough decisions that will help change the cultural trajectory.

For me, the process would begin by asking yourself some hard-hitting questions: What is working? What isn’t working? What needs to change? Have we lost our identity? And if so, where have we strayed from the path? Perhaps even more pressing: Do we have any cancer that is growing in our organization that needs to be removed?

Once these questions are truthfully answered and honestly evaluated, organizations can determine how to navigate back to the proper path—or determine whether they want to choose a different path entirely. The purpose of asking these key questions is to attain the feedback that enables you to adjust and make the necessary changes.

Granted, the dynamic is different if a leader arrives at an organization where the culture is already strong. At that point, you are in “don’t mess it up” mode, but it doesn’t mean you cannot instill some of your own cultural identity within your own team. Take the time to absorb the feedback then determine whether you need to tweak or modify anything significantly. Your people are your barometer as to whether the culture is alive and thriving or needs some fine-tuning.

Whether it’s at a startup or established company, once your foundational core values are firmly in place, you have to let those values be your guidepost in every decision you make as an organization. That includes the hiring process and should prominently factor into associate retention decisions, as well. If you compromise on your core values, it can fracture and weaken your cultural foundation.

Yes, every associate will possess their own unique personality traits that make them who they are as a person. A thriving culture should not force them to be someone they aren’t, but allow them to be authentically themselves. You will quickly discover whether your core values are already a part of their DNA and interwoven in their personality. When that happens, associates will flourish in your organization by simply being themselves.

That’s a winning formula for success!

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