THE BLOG
10/15/2012 04:06 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2013

The Secrets to a Healthy Company Culture (Hint: Get It Right From the Start)

There are a lot of articles these days about organizational culture and the importance it has on your company strategy, brand and employee satisfaction. And, yes, here is another. (So tweet this already!) As an organization and culture development consultant in the social impact space I have worked with both well-established organizations and startups, and each face their own challenges. Bigger, more established organizations struggle with managing culture shifts while working within already established political, hierarchical and operational systems. The newbie organizations oftentimes just don't have the capacity to even consider this soft stuff called "culture." And let's be honest, when it's just one or two founders working from a basement or garage, how much does culture really matter, anyway?

Startups, on the other hand, are in the perfect position to reap all of the benefits of a strong organization culture. The early days of a company's life are the most important time to find your team culture, because changing structures and strategy becomes much more complicated as time passes.

So if you're a startup, listen up! Here are the top five things you should be doing now to establish and promote a healthy culture:

1. Define your mission, vision and values -- and make them KNOWN

This might sound obvious, but it's critical to take the time to spell out your mission, vision and values -- and, more importantly, make sure your team is on the same page and can verbalize your mission with others outside of your organization. If you haven't established these items yet, go offsite for a day, bring some Post-it notes, and start thinking. Some questions to consider are: how will the world be a better place because our organization exists? What impact do we want to have? Who will our organization serve? If you already have these written out, keep revisiting them and sharing them with your team.

2. Create a team charter with your co-founders or other leadership members

A team charter starts with a conversation between your co-founder/co-director/partner/leadership team to outline the "ways of being." In this conversation you should outline your goals and objectives as a team, the team structure (including roles and responsibilities), a code of conduct, how you will manage conflict, how you will communicate with one another, and any other norms of behavior that will be important for team harmony. This is an ever-evolving conversation, but it is important to learn about one other and establish some ground rules. Learn about each others pet peeves, technology phobias, areas for growth and superpowers. If you don't do this up front, you will spend more time trying to navigate (or tiptoe around) conflicts and misunderstandings instead of moving your organization forward.

3. Establish your "must have" characteristics for hiring new employees

While it may just be you and your co-founder (or cat) at the moment, if your organization grows you will need to hire more staff. Taking a moment to establish your hiring criteria is a must. These criteria should reflect your organization's values and clearly define the ideal candidate. The characteristics should be descriptive enough that anyone in your organization can do an interview and judge whether a candidate is a good fit. And since your employees are always going to be your most valuable asset, taking the time to get it right cannot be underestimated.

4. Create rituals and symbols

And I don't mean animal sacrifices here. Creating rituals such as a new hire Q&A session, a gong you hit when you successfully secure funding or even weekly happy hours will create unity on your team no matter the size. As you grow your organization, new employees will see these rituals as signs of community, cohesion and camaraderie. Creating symbols is another fun way to help a team identify with one other. This, of course, could be an iteration on your logo, a mascot or even a ball in a plant pot. Don't ask -- it works.

5. Learn to tell your story

Lastly, one of the most powerful and unique team-building tools any organization has is their story. Being able to tell your story is not only important when pitching potential funders and partners, but becomes invaluable when recruiting new staff and defining your culture. Your story can inspire others to spread the word, to take action or to join your crazy crew. Make it meaningful and memorable -- this is how people will engage with you, identify your brand and understand your culture.