Martin Zwilling

By Martin Zwilling

Just as national cultures influence and shape a country, so does the startup culture set by founder strategy drive the future of a new venture. In top current companies, such as Google, Apple, and Netflix, cultural strategies that include greater employee freedom and fostering creativity are the norm. I believe this new focus on culture is a key to startup success today.

Thus creating the right company culture must be a top priority of every entrepreneur and business leader. Simply speaking, culture-driven businesses put their people first, and people make the business, rather than the other way around. Today’s business mantra must be “Take care of your people and they will take care of your business.” Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.

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Most startups are created by one or two entrepreneurial founders, with a vision and focus on developing an innovative solution, rather than on developing people. They are so immersed in their mission and their own ideas, that they find it hard to change their focus to nurturing new employees, and making sure the people have the same passion and motivation for the solution.

In fact, most see a more direct relationship between customers and their business success, so employee focus by default will end up in third place. Once this product-first, customer-second, and employee-last culture is set, it is extremely hard to change. Thus, in my advisory role to new businesses, I recommend a seven-step approach for setting the right culture from the start:

Communicate clear direction and values daily from the top. Employees need to see and understand the “why,” before they can buy in to what they need to do. These days, more than ever, the “why” needs to be a win-win for them, and for the greater community as a whole. Only then can they stay motivated and make the decisions you need to win.

Clearly define individual roles, and what you expect of them. Every team member needs to understand and be rewarded for the desired attributes, competencies, and results you need. It’s easy to see how cultures go astray, for example, when you pay only for sales volume, but expect a high focus on customer satisfaction.

Provide an inviting and appropriate work environment. Place shapes culture. Open architecture is more conducive to certain desired office behaviors, like collaboration and easy communication. Even geography counts – there is a reason that tech firms cluster in Silicon Valley and financial firms cluster in London and New York.

Establish metrics on the culture, as well as the product. Healthy cultures have high morale, as well as low turnover, high rates of retention, and attract top talent. These can be easily measured, and compared to winners in the marketplace. These metrics need the same top management attention as customer retention and sales metrics.

Recruit, mentor, and promote talent to highlight opportunity. It’s tempting as a startup to grab family members, or pay less and get inexperience. It’s also easy to skip the personnel focus in the heat of daily product and customer crises. Yet, in the long run, your people are your business. Make sure they get your first priority and attention always.

Highlight small successes rather than failures to set culture. The more intermediate successes you can attribute to team members, which confirm your direction and values, the more quickly people will relate to this culture as permanent, pervasive, and personal. Your goal is to have the team internalize and become advocates for your big picture.

Solidity team member trust by admitting your own mistakes. Practice humility and openness by being transparent about your own weaknesses and mistakes. Don’t hide the need for pivots, or required quality corrections. If you want your team members to display certain behaviors, you need to display them first. Leaders must walk their talk to get trust.

Even if your business is not in the startup stage, these steps will move you in the right direction, in assessing your culture and improving it. If you aren’t at least keep pace with a strong culture and finding a way to differentiate yourself, you’re already falling behind competition. In any case, building and maintaining a winning culture is not a one-time effort or a sprint, but a marathon. Start today.

The Writer is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and Angel investor. Published on Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc.

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