We've seen how crisis can strike at any time. The only way for a business to weather storm after storm is to build a company culture built on strong values.
2020 has been defined by some of the most fundamental social and economic changes in our lifetimes. The combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement has touched each of us personally and professionally. As we grapple with vital changes, questions and conversations, businesses face a dual responsibility: not only to manage their bottom line, but to support and empower employees, ensuring that all team members are able to do their best work.
Company culture is the cornerstone of this dual responsibility. The soul and personality of the company, the culture develops around core values that predicate how a company treats its employees and how it handles business decisions both internally and externally. If built correctly, a strong company culture enables high retention, encourages significant and sustainable productivity, and establishes a reputation that attracts valuable and diverse new hires.
The past few months have shown clearly that company culture is about more than just gourmet lunches and ping pong tables. Confronted with the health and economic crisis of COVID-19, and the ongoing and deeply human crisis of racial violence, an effective company culture must be deeply rooted, dynamic and responsive – serving as a touchstone for both employees and leadership to adapt, communicate and come out stronger together.
Creating this kind of culture is not easy. But if you can do it, it will fundamentally transform your company. Here's how to start.
1. Establish core values and live them every day.
To create a company culture with the depth and staying power to weather the most challenging circumstances, start at the foundation: the company's core values. Establishing and clearly defining these values will create a precise and logical framework that every employee can feel part of, and that every decision and new hire will tie into. In this way, every member of the organization is brought in and united behind a point of common agreement and understanding.
Values are not one-size-fits-all, and there are no shortcuts at this stage of the work. To define a set of values that will truly speak to your team and weather any future crisis, dedicate time to understand your business. What do you hope to accomplish, what do you have to offer, what role do you play in the market, and what kind of relationship do you hope to foster with clients and customers? These answers will help you build a culture that employees, leadership, partners and clients alike will want to embrace. In times of crisis, this is the backbone that employees will turn to and draw strength from.
For example, companies may choose values such as integrity, transparency, service or commitment. My company, which operates in the cannabis industry, chose leadership, trust and community as our core values. Recognizing the rocky beginnings of the cannabis industry, as well as its incredible capacity for healing and innovation, we pursue these values externally at every available opportunity. In client and partner relationships, social equity partnerships and programs, educational content creation, speaking engagements, issue advocacy, and marketing strategy, these values guide how we intervene and represent ourselves.
Internally, these values are implemented with equal rigor. To nurture the dynamism of a startup structure while ensuring that every team member feels supported and motivated to do their best work, we hire and develop staff at every level to operate on the foundations of leadership, trust and community. Management approaches team building with these values as the foundation, and team members use them as the wellspring for collaboration and external efforts.
Core values are more than words on paper, more than some cliche verbiage in an employee handbook. Keep them simple, memorable and meaningful, and then be vigilant about embodying them and defending them from both internal and external threats.
2. Advance these values both internally and externally.
Building a culture requires active and ongoing dedication to your core values. Consistency is everything, and the internal work must be broad and encompassing. Tie in how you treat your staff on a holistic level with how you foster values in meetings, while setting goals, and during business development and innovation. Check-ins with managers and their respective teams are also critical opportunities to hold space for these values, making sure that reviews and goals tie back to the core.
Externally, make the work equally consistent. Share and reinforce your values through the organizations you support, your time spent outside of the office building and connecting with communities, and the knowledge you share with clients and the public. Each of these efforts ties back directly to your core values, building a company culture with deep and wide-reaching roots that keep your team strong and upright in times of crisis.
3. Devote a team member to this work.
It bears repeating: Fostering a crisis-resistant company culture requires real, intentional work, particularly from leadership. An employee in a leadership role who is dedicated to supporting staff within the framework of the company's values empowers all company leaders to fulfill their roles successfully, without letting this central work slip through the cracks.
Employees are the heartbeat of the company. A desginated chief of staff keeps that beat healthy and strong. In this role, a great chief of staff feels personally responsible to support the team, to talk to them about more than work, to hear their pain as it relates to life and strife in the world, to be a sounding board for them, and to wholeheartedly want to see them win. There should be no ego in this role, but a sense of connecting with team members on a personal level to understand them and help them achieve their goals.
This is a dedicated effort to make your team feel heard, empowered, focused and accountable. It sets an example for how all team members can best hear and support each other. When a crisis emerges, this network of mutual trust support is a lifeline.
4. Live your leadership.
In a crisis-resistant company culture, leadership is everything. Don't just talk about it; be about it. Put your words and your company values into action.
Of course, you want to empower each team member to make their own decisions based on what they think is right during a crisis. However, as we navigate tough and emotional times, it is imperative for you and your company's other leaders to guide, direct, care, and be the change and support that you want for your team.
Ask yourself, "In crisis, how can our values alleviate pain, bring us together, and create the change we all want and need?" This is your action plan. Share this plan with your team, and in quarterly check-ins, have each employee rate how they think your company and they themselves are tracking in alignment with these values. This will help ensure that your culture remains top of mind and held to a high standard for everyone.
Most importantly (and critically during a crisis), lead with humanity. The linchpin of a strong and lasting company culture is leadership that feels tied to staff, and takes seriously the responsibility of making sure all team members feel heard and taken care of emotionally. Be there for your staff as humans first.
The past several months have made it abundantly clear: Company culture is more than a fair-weather perk. Of course, to foster a culture that has depth, dynamism, and the strength to weather storm after storm requires hard work and investment. But if do it right, the culture that emerges will pay dividends in humanity, empathy and resilience for years to come.
Lisa Raja is the Chief of Staff at Oakland-based infusion technology company Vertosa. A relentless entrepreneur, Lisa’s entrepreneurial spirit was inherited from her father and came to life in her first business as a boutique owner, adding to over 20 years’ experience in fashion, retail, merchandising, and business development. Lisa hung up her fashion hat and launched Trademoms, a marketplace empowering mothers to capitalize on their skills as a currency. Amidst it all, Lisa developed a line of small batch skin care, Anaya Lily, a passion project that led her to Vertosa and the cannabis industry. Lisa has been featured in both local and national press, including KTVU Fox News and Oakland Magazine.