During trying times, it can be easy for company leaders to let culture fall to the bottom of the priority list. When you do this, you lose some of the “secret sauce” that makes your company stand out. Things that were non-negotiable suddenly become compromised. Even your talent is at stake. A Columbia University study reveals that nearly half of employees are “very likely” to job hunt when their current company culture weakens.
I’ve seen firsthand how important it is to maintain culture at all times — tough or otherwise. We launched our company with a flexible, autonomous culture that borrowed team-trusting strategies from Patagonia and Zappos. But in our company’s early days, like at many startups, there was a small window for making mistakes. We were in an early growth stage when any significant misstep could have caused serious damage, but we needed to uphold our product quality, employee performance, and corporate commitment to environmental sustainability—three major tenets of our culture.
In the end, while we had to part ways with some employees who were good people but not the right fit for the company and culture, we refused to compromise on quality and donations to environmental causes (in spite of what most financial experts might have advised our company to do). Prioritizing our culture is what helped us power through our challenges, and we came out stronger for it.
Four Ways to Keep Culture on Track
To keep culture in the forefront when the waters get choppy, CEOs can take these tried-and-true steps:
1. Lead by example. As a leader, you set the tone for your employees, so you must keep your culture in mind with every action you take. With each decision, think: “Will I be proud of this next week? Next month?” Speak mindfully when you interact with employees and stakeholders. No matter how tough the situation might be, treat them the way you’d want to be treated.
2. Spell it out. Make sure your company documents your culture in a place that’s accessible to all employees. For us, we describe our mission and culture in our onboarding documents. We also ask employees to read books that inspired our culture, including books about corporate and social responsibility. Teammates know from the beginning what we’re about, which keeps everyone grounded in our core values.
3. Recruit slowly. It’s not uncommon for our candidates to have up to five separate interviews. This lets potential employees hear from several different voices in the company so they can better evaluate whether we’re the right fit for them. Hiring slowly also gives us a robust idea of whether a candidate will help keep our culture intact.
4. Rally regularly. There needs to be ongoing conversations about culture and progress. This can involve formal meetings or ad hoc conversations, but regardless of the format, prioritize speaking with and listening to employees. Research demonstrates that seventy-five percent of employees will stay with a company that truly listens to feedback and concerns, so keep top players happy by hearing them out!
No one is immune to hard times, but your values cannot take a backseat when business gets tough. Even when you’re struggling to keep the lights on, you have to act with culture in mind every step of the way — your products, employees, and business will thank you for it.