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Creating an Entrepreneurial Culture

Jennifer Lawton, Owner, Just Books, Inc.

Culture is a hot buzzword among corporate and entrepreneurial companies alike. It's what everyone is striving for, what brings on the loyalty, what attracts and keeps the really awesome employees.

If done right, it seems so simple. Good corporate culture, in its purest sense, and at its most successful, has the look and feel of something organic and uncontrived, something that just exists. But alas, there's the rub, and at once the wonderful twist: Corporate culture cannot, does not and never will exist "just because." Culture is a balancing act between many elements of a company and requires careful execution at each level.

This is especially true for entrepreneurial companies, where what's going on is the building of a business as well as a culture. Corporate culture must be led, nurtured, constantly monitored and adjusted. Much like a "culture" in a petri dish, it requires that you combine the right ingredients, in the right way, to ensure that what you grow is not an aberration of your intentions.

Laying the Groundwork

When I founded Net Daemons, my computer consulting company, I had very definite ideas of what I wanted to provide for our future employees, a safe and comfortable environment, which enabled people to learn, grow and, at the same time, focus on their day-to-day work.

From early on, I felt it was important to treat every employee with trust and respect. That meant assuming automatically that each was an honest, hard-working, reliable and dependable individual. Rather than requiring all employees show up at nine and leave at five, for example, I expected each person to do the job assigned, and to apply the right amount of time and quality of skills toward the accomplishment of each task.

While I wasn't aware, back then, that I was creating what is now considered "corporate culture," I knew I was looking to create a place of employment where employees were at once valued for who they were and what they brought to the table. This was critical for our business, which sold knowledge and a system of collaboration between some 45 engineers providing network-administration and internet-development solutions. If a team isn't in sync, you can't sell a team approach, and you're no better than the single consultant.

What Makes a Culture Entrepreneurial?

As one of our engineers once put it, in an entrepreneurial culture, work is more than a job, it's a lifestyle. Employees are more like a team than in most companies, and in some cases, we're even like a family.

What also evolved was a set of rules for creating and maintaining NDA's petri dish. In creating your own, consider these rules:

  • Treat people with respect. This is a very simple premise, which threads through each and every complicated issue that can arise within a company. Respect and trust provide the necessary base for a vibrant and sustainable corporate culture.
  • Help employees stay healthy. When employees get sick, they miss work, so it makes sense to offer health insurance as a benefit. We covered 100% of employee health plans. I never want an employee to experience a catastrophic illness and not be covered by insurance. We also offered unlimited sick time. While I had seen this type of policy backfire elsewhere, it nonetheless allowed people to be sick when they really were sick, and not feel obligated to gobble up each "allotted" sick day. You may also want to add a wellness allowance for health-club membership.
  • Open doors to communication. Create an environment where people can interact with each other, support each other and recognize each other's efforts and achievements. Provide positive rewards for positive behavior. Share information, so that employees are aware of the direction of the company and are involved in it. Use all-hands meetings for financial and operational information, team-building and social events. Offer incentive programs to reward effort and improve quality of life.
  • Build camaraderie. Make time for people to get to know each other and the company. We held an annual off-site meeting to build team spirit and discuss where the company was going. At such events you can also distribute and share your business plan and discuss issues and ideas raised by your strategies.

Maintaining Entrepreneurial Culture

Once you have healthy, trusted and informed employees, don't let the culture that's evolving just be. It needs to be watched so that it grows as you intended. The trick is standing back, but not too far back. In maintaining your culture, consider these rules.

  • Let the team build itself. Within that safe, comfortable, open environment, let employees grow together without being made to.
  • Participate without controlling. Let the culture thrive, without your either meddling with it or ignoring it.
  • Don't forget the little things. Culture is made up of many small actions that, when put together, create something larger than the sum of the parts. There are many things a CEO can do to make employees feel a part of the company. Some are just common courtesies: hallway conversations, saying "hello" in the morning, opening doors, asking after people's families and partners. Others are little extras, such as flowers to say thank you and happy-birthday e-mail messages. Eating lunch with employees, helping spouses find jobs and participating in team events show that you, the CEO, are involved with your employees.

Treating employees with respect helps enable them to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. If you challenge people to raise their bars, provide fun activities, keep people informed and humanize your management, you get culture. From these basics, you will grow in your petri dish a strong, healthy culture that will allow you, your company and your employees to flourish.

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