The Blue Kite Blog

How Founders Inspire Winning Cultures

By | June 28, 2016

There’s a running joke in our office that goes something like this:

“What is the best way to turn around a company?”

“How?”

“Three things: install a foosball table, a free “Monster” vending machine, and schedule permanent “Beer Fridays.”

All good things, but we know that creating an enduring company that makes a lasting impact requires more than fun, energy and booze.

Here’s the kicker…

As a founder, how do you lead in a way that creates a business that leaves a legacy?

It’s easy to find articles about what company culture is, ways you can create it and examples of what it looks like at “the best places to work.” We even wrote about how to create healthy culture on a budget.

But despite all of the information available about building a strong company culture, people often believe they don’t have the money, time or ability to do this in their organization. Or they think company culture is all about foosball tables, beer fridges, unlimited vacation days or flat organizational structures.

None of these things are true.

Three Pillars to Inspiring Strong Culture

A strong company culture is way more than that – it’s about casting a compelling vision, creating the right environment and cultivating your team in a way that makes them feel valued.

When you focus on these three things (we call them the three pillars of strong culture), you will build a business where great work happens and employees thrive.

Sound too good to be true?

It’s not. We’re going to show you how to get there. Today, we’re going to focus on the first pillar of strong culture – how to get the big picture right.

PILLAR 1: Getting the Big Picture Right

Although no two organizations are alike, there are some common characteristics among companies with a strong, intentional culture. And, it all starts by focusing on the the big picture. Getting this right is paramount for setting the tone and direction for your company’s culture.

1. Shared Vision

Betting on a one-of-a-kind product is dangerous. It’s easier than ever to clone a competitive product and go-to-market in weeks.

However, culture is virtually impossible to rip-off. The good news is that great products are built by great teams and great teams are built on the foundation of great culture.

Dig deeper and you’ll find that world-beating culture comes from a clearly-defined, Founder-Inspired Vision. Savvy founders instinctively understand that creating and communicating their vision is critical to building a business that matters.

This is where many organizations stumble. The founder believes creating the vision is a collaborative task. They spend months running brainstorming meetings that produce generic vision statements that mean nothing to the organization.

Instead, the Founder should create the vision and then work with their leadership team to communicate it throughout the organization.

For example, after being re-installed as the CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs asked for a list of all the projects and products, both finished and under development. His top managers delivered a list that included a dozen variations of the Macintosh computer alone. He immediately axed the product line to just four products.

He captured his vision in a simple illustration:

Illustration of how Steve Jobs whittled the Mac down to four products.

His guiding principle was “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. It’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”

Steve Jobs understood that the Founder inspires the vision and then makes it a reality by clearly and consistently communicating it throughout the organization.

2. Shared Values

A founder’s vision springs from his most cherished beliefs.

While values can be embraced in different ways by the leadership team, trying to create them via consensus is a wasted exercise. The founder’s values will drive the “corporate values”.

The founder will need to build a team that believe and can enhance these values.

I love college football. I’m particularly fascinated with art of architecting a winning college football program. As an Ohio Boy, I’ve enjoyed watching Urban Meyer build a culture of excellence based on shared values.

During the last few years, Meyer has hired several assistant coaches for his team.  Every time, he’s emphasized hiring smart, intense men that can build on the culture, playbook and values he already has in place.

These new hires understand what Urban wants and rely on their unique backgrounds to tailor the program to athletes in their care.

Note that Urban didn’t hold team building sessions to draft the team’s shared values.  He brought the values, communicated them and evaluated talent based on them.

Your values should absolutely be shared across your organization, but it must the founder who inspires and creates them.

3. Shared Rituals

Few things cement relationships more than shared rituals.They build camaraderie amongst teammates and establish desired behaviors.

Sports teams – from pee wees to pros – truly embody this idea. Think about every athletic competition you’ve ever watched. Each team has their own set of rituals – from the way they take the field to how they conduct pre-game warm-ups to post-game huddles and celebrations.

Companies can achieve the same benefit by establishing their own set of rituals and traditions. Not only do they give your team a tangible way to live out the company values, but rituals and traditions become the hallmark for how you do business.

For instance, take a look at IDEO, a global design firm. They prioritize collaboration at their company, so many of their rituals center around food. They provide breakfast on Thursdays and lunch on Fridays, so the kitchen becomes a gathering place for their team.

Sometimes, rituals can be created organically. But most of the time, it takes a leader – the founder – to inspire and create them.

And, these rituals don’t have to be complicated, expensive or complex. This could include initiation practices for new hires, how you celebrate winning new business or even how you conduct meetings.

Whatever you decide to do, it’s these rituals become the glue that holds your team together and the “special sauce” that sets your company apart. Don’t skip out on this!

Laying the Foundation for Culture

Vision, values and rituals lay the foundation for a strong culture, but it can’t stop there.

Next week, we’ll talk about what it takes to create a winning culture by establishing the right environment.

You don’t want to miss it. Subscribe here so you you’ll get it as soon as it’s published.