Four Steps for Building a Culture From (Almost) Scratch


A friend of mine is struggling with significant challenges in her startup.

The good news is she:

  • has a solid revenue stream and isn’t solely reliant on investors
  • is attracting top talent to her company
  • is poised for tremendous growth in the next 18 months.

But the company struggles with decision-making clarity at the top levels, communication across dispersed teams and an organizational structure that can’t easily scale with its growth.

Where to begin?

Instead of tackling everything at once, she strategically decided to define the organizational culture and values and collect data about what’s working and what isn’t. From there, she will have direction to put in place the tactical to-dos and changes to address the core problems.

Since she is not a fan of a long drawn out assessment phase, 200 page surveys or 3 inch thick binders of “findings and recommendations.”

This is her quick and dirty approach:

  1. Get a really good handle on today (Define the As-Is/Current State).The only way to understand what’s going on is to listen. Through interviews with top managers, employees, and engagement data, she will find the themes and confirm the biggest pain and pleasure points. She thinks she knows what will bubble up, but she also knows that she must be open to the inevitable surprises.
  2. Define the culture (Describe the To-Be/Future State). This is a new organization. The leadership team recognizes they need to take a step back (or forward) and articulate and agree to: What are our values? What kind of people do we want working here? What’s important for growing our business? How do we want employees to describe working here?
  3. Analyze the gaps between 1 and 2. Next they will determine the biggest gaps and prioritize. Their over arching question is “What will hurt us most if ignored?”
  4. Build a plan to close the most important gaps and execute. Plans are nice but they mean nothing without action. She knows she must get tactical and demonstrate results to her people, even if it’s just bite-sized wins at first.

A few watch outs:

  • The tendency is to jump straight to #4. Don’t. Start by validating.
  • Employees need to see leadership walking the talk. Trust is key.
  • Communication back to employees happens at every step. Employees are interested and curious. Keep them updated.
  • Involve people and give them a say as much as possible.

Margarita Mondays and Foosball Fridays are great, but giving people a hand in shaping a company, recognizing them and thanking them, treating them fairly, fostering trust and teamwork – that will take you much further.

Marta Steele is a partner @People_Results. Connect with her on Twitter @MartaSteele