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How to Build a Good Company Culture, or A Pep Talk About Making Clear What Matters

How to Build a Good Company Culture, or A Pep Talk About Making Clear What Matters

Oct 12th 2021 Written by Steve Morrow

Corporate culture is exactly what it sounds like, but, because of the “corporate” part, often gets relegated to conversations about big business. In the realm of specialty coffee, a burgeoning but fairly new industry, very few of those “big” ones exist, and so the conversation, lacking the proper vocabulary, gets split into many different conversations about morale, malaise, ennui, etc. The bottom line is: when employees or management or whomever is unhappy at work, the culture suffers. Often the culture is to blame.

If culture is to blame, you might say, then how do we fix it? Research says this is a little backwards and unproductive. Trying to “fix” a poorly constructed culture is a band-aid; creating culture in the first place is the key.

conversation about culture

But it stands to reason that getting it right the first time is not so easy. Beyond the behemoths (the Starbucks, Intelligentsias, and Stumptowns of the world), coffee businesses are relatively small operations. It would be nice to have an army of corporate citizens who, as their only job, research best practices, carefully onboard baristas, and generally create and maintain a welcoming workplace, but most businesses don’t have those kinds of resources. Employee handbooks, mission statements, value statements, if they exist at all (and we hope they do), were probably written or compiled by an owner who was overwhelmed with a thousand other tasks and thoughts as to be incapable of devoting the energy to getting it right the first time or by a manager who was given carte blanche but not much guidance. This isn’t to say that owners shouldn’t try or that owners should be let off the hook for poor management; it is to say, however, that there is something to be said for getting it right, period. First, second, third, whenever. We have a responsibility to our community, patrons, and above all, the people who have chosen to work with us.

Culture is often defined generally as the shared values, beliefs, and behaviors of a group. In the workplace, that group is made up of employees, who, by the nature of their obligations, necessarily share tasks, space, and stressors, but, being individuals, do not necessarily share a culture. The idea of the culture might exist; the leaders may have written it on whiteboards or codified it across several pages in the employee handbook. No matter. It is not enough for a leader to tell everyone what the culture is supposed to be; the leaders must create an environment where the desired culture can exist, proliferate, thrive.

“What we want is a ceaseless harvest and that is hard work.”

In this way, the word “culture” takes on its other meanings, the ones beyond corporate or organizational or workplace: cultivating the soil; growing and nurturing a living thing in a controlled environment. It may sound silly, but the more you approach work culture with the mindset of a farmer, the more likely it is to take hold. Imagine a person who says, “I am a farmer” but spends little time in the fields. The combine is brand new. The land is in an enviable location. But most of the crops die and the harvest is sparse. What was the point of all that pomp and circumstance? The same is true of managers and owners who pay lip service to culture—maybe even buy all the best equipment and lease the best location, substituting status for culture—but don’t seem to care about cohesiveness, teamwork, and don’t do the hard work of tilling, planting, and tending. What we want is a ceaseless harvest and that is hard work.

Harvard Business Review has combed through the academic research on the subject and identified four common characteristics of culture: it is shared, pervasive, enduring, and implicit, which is to say every single person at every level of the organization believes it from the moment they are hired to the moment they leave, if ever, and beyond, and they recognize it in everything they and their colleagues do.

top view of a table with coffees

So how do you, how does anyone, really, convince, if that is the right word, everyone in a company to buy into the culture. There is only one answer: mean it. This sounds simple, but sincerity isn’t easy, it isn’t fakeable. Our employees won’t believe us if we don’t believe us. We can fool them at first, sure, in the interview, for instance, but once the hard work of a running a business begins, what we value will be laid bare. If our mission says we value caring for people, but we treat our employees poorly, even if we treat customers like royalty, then we are a culture where treating people poorly is acceptable. We are what we do. Employees will know it sooner or later. You can fire them and hire others, but if nothing changes the new ones will find out, too, and you will be stuck in a dreaded revolving door of HR.

They know because culture is deeply embedded in the soil. Remember the farming analogy. It holds. Culture is connected to brand identity, which should be planted way before the business is open and way before others, employees, come into focus. Who are we? Why do we exist? We could easily measure business success in terms of money, i.e., profit, but this reveals very little, if anything, about the identity. Every company needs to make money. This fact doesn’t distinguish you at all, doesn’t make your company special. It is the brand identity that does. To the other questions we can add: How do we do things around here?

When we consult for people who want to open a coffee shop, we start there. Who are you? Why do you exist? How do you do things? Know the answers to these questions and you will be in the right place to write the company culture guide. Write the mission statement. Write the values. This is the kind of company we are. These are the kinds of things we spend our time on. This is what we care about. This, by the way, should not include words associated with profit, money, dollars, revenue, sales, etc. That is reserved for the business plan, a document the staff will never see. In fact, culture is that nebulous abstraction that gives your employees permission to completely ignore money if it means staying true to the brand.

It is easy to get caught up in the more creative sides of brand: the logo, the website, the color scheme, the espresso machine, etc. These are all important aspects to the story and they should be attended to in time. However, they should not be conflated with the the core identity from which everything else flows. Culture is the core.

Oct 12th 2021 Steve Morrow

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