This Was My Single Biggest Mistake in Building Company Culture

Confession time: I made a mistake—one that I’ve been working to correct. I’m hoping that sharing my missteps in building company culture will help save some of you from having to learn the same lessons the hard way.

More specifically, my failure to define the culture that I wanted at my last startup from day one.

It wasn’t that the team wasn’t engaged or enjoying the work. We were getting a lot done and were relatively in sync most days.

But it wasn’t easy to describe the “why” behind the work we do. And the problem became immediately clear when we started hiring quickly. After hearing that a candidate “wasn’t a good culture fit” one too many times, I realized we weren’t using a shared vocabulary to talk about our culture.

So I made a promise that if I had the chance, I’d do things differently the next time.

Here’s what I learned:

Lesson #1: Company Culture Should Be Defined at the Outset

Organizational culture is critical. It’s what keeps teams united and companies competitive. (It’s no coincidence that Fortune’s Best Companies and Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work are both based on employee surveys. Or that 95% of Deloitte survey participants believe culture is more important than compensation.)

If you don’t take steps to define it early, organizational culture can become something that “happens when nobody’s looking” — instead of a key driver of success.

Expecting culture to manifest itself organically as the company grows is a big mistake. In fact, recent research indicates the opposite is more likely to happen.

According to Deloitte, culture, and engagement are now the top talent challenges facing business leaders. But the ability to address these issues has dropped by 14% overall since last year. It appears that growth can lead to siloed HR departments where it’s difficult “to obtain the resources needed” to address work culture itself.

Which brings me to lesson #2…

Lesson #2: It’s Never Too Early To Start Building Company Culture

The earlier you set out to identify the values, behaviors, and motivators that make your company unique, the easier it’s going to be.

If you don’t define your culture, at some point your employees will end up doing it for you. And the longer an organization’s culture is neglected at a high level, the more likely it is for things to go down a path you don’t want your company to take.

There’s no magic milestone or turning point when building company culture comes into play. In fact, according to one study, not having a clearly communicated culture early on can do a lot of harm—even when the company appears to be succeeding.

After analyzing 95 auto dealerships over a six-year period, researchers found that companies with strong financial performance early on in the study saw revenues decline when they didn’t have a positive culture.

For companies that did maintain a positive culture, the opposite was true. The employers who got high marks on corporate culture improved performance and increased profits over time.

The takeaway is simple: Don’t wait.

Lesson #3: A Strong Culture Is Also a Strong Motivator

If you’ve been reading the Jell blog for awhile, you’ve likely noticed that I’m big on working toward individual and team goals. One thing that I didn’t factor in at the outset, however, is how big building company culture can play in motivation.

Empowering employees to articulate the specifics of your culture and how it impacts the day-to-day can be a game changer. To quote corporate culture experts Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi,Why we work determines how well we work.”

McGregor and Doshi cite a study where researchers asked almost 2,500 workers to analyze medical images for “objects of interest” and paid them per image analyzed. One group was told work would be discarded; the other group was under the impression that the objects being studied were “cancerous tumor cells.”

The latter group spent more time on each image and presented higher quality work, even though it meant they’d make less money. (The “cancer” group earned 10% less, on average.)

Reshaping your company’s culture doesn’t just make the office a happy place to be. It can also transform the way employees work.

Lesson #4: Culture Should Guide Growth (Not the Other Way Around)

Another result of not articulating company culture early on? At some point, you learn the hard way just how much company growth depends on it.

Turns out, more than 40% of job candidates search for information about organizational culture before they apply, which means culture is a screening tool when it comes time to recruit talent.

It’s also a great foundation to fall back on once you start to experience inevitable growth pains. When things don’t seem to be going as well as you’d like, a clearly communicated company culture allows you to revisit what it was that made the organization great, to begin with.

So, there you have it. I wish I had spent more time establishing and communicating company culture early on, and am taking steps to correct it.

When I started Jell, I began to think about the culture I wanted to build right away. Inspired by Netflix’s famous culture deck, I decided to share my own short presentation with the team when we were just a few months in. (For the record: it has nothing to do with free beer in the office or playing ping pong.)

I also took a stab at identifying the five core values that will ultimately drive the culture at Jell and help us stay focused on why we do what we do. Those core values have led to some great discussions. And while the vocabulary we use might change slightly over time, I’m confident that we’re on the same page.

Jell helps companies and teams stay informed and connected so they can celebrate accomplishments, goals, and successes. Add daily standups, check-ins, and OKR goals to your culture by signing up for a 14-day trial today.

Unite your team with daily standups, make progress visible, and reach goals faster—all in minutes a day.