by Leslie “LAM” Miller | Featured Contributor
Whether you own a business stocked with massive inventory or, like me, sell services rather than things, what we have in common is our most precious asset: our people. And many of us go the extra mile to keep our employees happy, for various reasons. For one, hiring is pricey—upwards of $250,000 to hire and train a high-level exec. Perhaps even more costly are the inevitable effects of a culture crisis: low morale, reduced productivity, a decrease in creativity and innovation, and teams who squabble rather than collaborate. So, how do you stave off crisis and create a culture that other businesses will covet? Here are a few ideas that have worked for us:
Define and share your values
Before Girl Friday Productions hired a single employee, the partners worked with a fantastic consultant, Libby Wagner, to help us think through the big questions. No, I’m not referring to board structure or to investment strategies. I’m talking about values. Every member of our company understands and is expected to practice our four pillars of respect, genuineness, empathy, and specificity in our interactions with one another and with our clients. And this starts at the top. Model the behavior you want to see. Only by walking the walk and being explicit about the company’s values and expectations will you get the results you want and nurture a great company culture.
It’s become buzzworthy to create a company that fails forward, but what does that really look like in practice? It means employees are not penalized for admitting to failures and mistakes but rather praised for analyzing their failures and then implementing strategic change. Ask yourself, does your performance management system or bonus structure reward learning, or increase the chances your team will try to hide their mistakes? And are you giving yourself the grace to learn from your mistakes as well?
Take responsibility for failures and give credit for successes
When the company fails, look in the mirror; when the company succeeds, look out the window. It’s a popular leadership adage for a reason. Only insecure CEOs believe it signals weakness to take responsibility for missteps, misguided strategies, or quality issues rather than throwing their employees under the bus. Conversely, make sure you take time to celebrate your successes and give credit to your entire team, not just to the C-suite. We made it easier at our firm by dedicating an email alias to “myhero.” Anyone can write in when they feel thankful or inspired by a team member’s performance. We then share these tributes at monthly staff meetings.
I think transparency is both more natural for female leaders and carries more risk. More natural because women are socialized to be self-deprecating and open about our faults (sometimes to a fault). Riskier because the bar is already set higher for women, making transparency around a tough earnings report or an HR crisis a tough call for female CEOs. Team members trust leaders who are honest with them, even when, perhaps especially when there is hard news to share. Culture is enhanced by truth, not by closed doors and whispered conversations.
Consistently evaluate performance
We’ve all conducted an annual review where an employee’s coworkers finally let loose on the issue they’d been holding in all year. How did that go? Was the employee eager to accept the criticism and focused on change? Of course not. No one should be surprised by anything they hear in their annual review, because good managers and colleagues respectfully confront issues as they arise rather than springing them on employees months later. Not only is it unfair to the employee in question, but it’s a disservice to the rest of the team, who are forced to negotiate around the issue. Engage in continuous or frequent performance management and commit to “courageous” conversations. Your team will thank you for it.