Operations Team

How to nurture a winning small business culture

There’s nothing like hearing from the small business trenches about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to creating a strong company culture. Drawing on several interviews with owners of businesses known as great places to work, learn and grow professionally, I’ve compiled a list of things to think about for nurturing your workplace culture, where employees will feel included and engaged and want to do their best work for you. After all, that’s just good business. Indeed, in a recent Gallup study, 90% of millennials rated “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as keenly important to them in a workplace.

The good news for small businesses: You may be already on your way to creating a winning company culture.

“Small businesses tend to create more of a family environment — it’s more collegial, less restrictive — and you can often find employees with long tenures in small organizations because they treat one another as family,” said Kiomara Hidalgo, a consultant at Florida SBDC at FIU, in an earlier interview. “Relationships get deeper and more personalized. They don’t see themselves as just a number.”

Here is some advice that I’ve heard a lot from the trenches of small businesses and larger ones too:

A great culture starts at the top – be transparent, consistent and build trust

Building a culture where employees feel engaged and want to do their best work has to start from the top.

Small business leaders should be open and transparent with their team, including sharing the lessons from any failures or mistakes. The founders of BrightGauge, a Miami-based software company, shared that they held weekly company-wide meetings where the founders were very open about strategy, hits and misses. One way you could kick this off with your own business is to invite  employees to submit anonymous questions that get answered by management at scheduled meetings.

3CInteractive’s John Duffy also believes culture starts at the top; the mobile marketing firm in Boca Raton has been repeatedly recognized by as one of South Florida’s best places to work. It all starts with the commitment Duffy and his co-founders made to each other before even incorporating the business about the kind of company they wanted to build: (1) being sustainable and not controlled by investors, (2) doing something important for a world-class client and (3) investing in a culture focused on the personal and professional development of its team. What are your business’ founding values?

“As our business grew, we decided to make repeating those principals part of every message we have in the organization: This is who we are, this is what we stand for and this is how you know whether this is the place for you,” Duffy said. Part of his leadership mantra: Practice what you preach, be transparent with the team about the decisions the company makes and problems it faces, and be consistent.

And yes, culture affects the bottom line. “For a company like ours in a competitive market and environment like South Florida and wireless, reducing your churn is an extraordinarily important component of the bottom line. Every day we are doing at least one new thing, and all those learnings translate to future success. If all of that expertise and scar tissue is going out the door, that would be a challenge. If we are a good place to work, it makes us a desirable place for the best people. If we maintain that, those best people will stay with us,” said Duffy.

Makes sense. In a previous GrowBIz post, author and consultant Charles H. Green talked about a trust-based culture: “We follow people we trust: and we trust people whom we believe, find reliable, are easy to share issues with, and who have our best interests at heart. …Give your team the rare and special gift of your attention. … And walking the talk is always important, but when it comes to trust, it’s an absolute deal-breaker. … A team that trusts each other is enormously powerful.”

Your company culture should align with your mission and your company values.

Does your team work together in furthering your company’s mission and toward clearly defined goals? Does your team even know what your mission is?

This starts with defining your company values – and making sure everyone knows them.  “As anti-corporate as we were, we developed core values — humble, passionate and good. It made it super easy to hire people. They had to fit those values,” said Brian Dosal, co-founder of BrightGauge.

3C’s mission statement: “Each day we strive to inspire our clients, inspire each other and make a difference.” Duffy, too, said the mission statement guides everything they stand for and everything they do – work, culture, impact.

Start by tackling the tough questions like what people can expect from working in your office and what values are front and center for your business. The Dosals once told me they took pride in the way they went about hiring their team. They required applicants to write why they wanted to join the company and why they believed they were a good fit because the Dosals were looking for people who wanted more than a paycheck. Decisions on hiring were made by an interviewing group and it needed to be unanimous but always with the three core values in mind – humble, passionate and good.

As for a goals strategy, check out this previous GrowBiz post about thinking about goals in steps and making sure everyone knows what they are working toward.

Lastly, think about how your culture can include giving back. Even the smallest of businesses may be able to give employees a day off to work with a charity of their choice and that is the way to do that; a business wide initiative is another. And there may be ways to connect giving with your mission.

Zumba does that. The South Florida-based  company that is now a worldwide phenomenon encourages its Zumba instructors to hold dancing fund-raisers for charities they personally care about and use its Zumbathon platform to do it. Employees can also participate in company efforts to support breast cancer research, ALS research and education. Says Alberto Perlman, Zumba’s CEO: “It starts with heart.”

Foster collaboration – and include your remote workers.

This can come from the top down – but also the bottom up. Hosting a social team event is a great way to help everyone gets to know each other on a personal level. Collaboration can spark creativity, just know that being intentional about fostering a collaborative environment should not mean you abandon individual accountability.

If you have virtual employees or even people who work remotely just some of the time, you’ll want to hear this: A new survey found that 70% of remote workers feel left out from their companies. The survey also said most felt they were being left out of important communications. Including them in meetings through Skype or other video services will help make them feel more included. An event planning business with a large remote workforce that  I interviewed said that in addition to all meetings conducted via Skype or video conferencing, they also hold two in-person meetings a year that also include some time for fun team building exercises and group dinners.

Family businesses may require some extra love.

In a previous GrowBiz post, Hidalgo, the Florida SBDC at FIU consultant, said family businesses should play to their strengths. The culture can be appealing to many because it likely won’t be as rigid as a big company and more like a family, she said.

The flip side is there can be drawbacks in a family business, particularly when the CEO makes operational decisions based on family dynamics rather than on real business needs. “The nepotism can be so heavy, they aren’t allowing people with the right skill sets to be in decision-making roles because they have family members in them.” She suggests the CEOs go through the process of creating an org chart if they haven’t already to help identify necessary functions, existing skill sets and hiring needs.

“And you probably want as your COO someone who is not a family member, because they see things in black and white. There’s no emotional context involved in it,” added FIU Business Professor Jerry Haar who has studied family business.

Work/life balance – it’s really a thing that workers value.

Burning your employees out so the company succeeds has always been a bad idea, more so now when skilled people are in short supply. And no, a ping-pong table in the office for some stress release is not going to do it.

“We have to take care of our employees, including work/life balance,” said Brian Dosal of  Brightgauge.  “We want you to come in and do good work and then go home and be with your family,” added co-founder Eric Dosal.

Beyond the mindset shift, small businesses can also make sure technologies and processes are in place that will help employees work more efficiently — not longer hours.

Please send GrowBiz topic suggestions and feedback to GrowBiz@FIU.EDU

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