Does it matter if you like your staff?

How to build an effective corporate culture.

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(Fortune Small Business) -- All companies have a corporate culture. Some cultures are good; others are bad. Some are productive, some destructive.

My business grew from one employee (me) in the beginning to more than 100 today. I didn't give the culture question much thought until I started hiring people from different companies and industries. Pretty soon I noticed that employees sometimes brought with them old habits that didn't work in my environment.

After one management meeting, my new marketing director mentioned to me that she wasn't sure she agreed with a point that I had made in the meeting. I asked her why she hadn't brought it up at the meeting so we could all discuss it. She replied that she had wanted to be respectful. Then it dawned on me: In the big business environment that she had come from, questioning the boss in a meeting could mean career suicide.

Respect the Mission. I told her that if she really wanted to be respectful, she should never concern herself about being respectful to a position. Instead, be respectful to the mission. Throw it out there. We'll discuss it, we might argue, and we might laugh at each other. No one will cry, no one will have hurt feelings, and we'll come up with a solution that works for us.

I frequently get my mind changed in these discussions. But we always find the best decision for the company, so I always win.

Go the Extra Mile. So what is corporate culture? There are several aspects to consider.

How far will you go for a customer? Most companies claim that they will do whatever is necessary to make a customer happy. But going beyond lip service means you have to train employees rigorously and empower them to solve problems. In a mail-order business, you might have to spend extra money on airfreight to make sure that a shipment reaches the customer on time. In a restaurant it could mean showing up at a customer's house with part of a takeout order that wasn't put in the bag.

Treat One Another Well. How much do you expect from employees? Do salaried staffers regularly work 40 hours a week? 50? 60? 70? What happens when the need to take care of a customer conflicts with an employee's needs?

How do your people treat one another? I came to a conclusion that I will not employ anyone who is disrespectful to others. That might sound simple, but it isn't.

Rock from the Top. What kind of performance is accepted at the company? Is a 5% error rate okay? Is 3% sales growth accepted as a fact of life?

Changing your corporate culture requires more than holding workshops or sending memos. It means taking inventory of your values, both personally and as a company.

When I first started in business, I thought I should like everyone who worked for me. Then I went through a period when I figured that I didn't need to like everyone as long as they were doing their jobs.

Now I'm back to requiring 100% likability. Why? If I don't like them, other staffers probably don't like them either, and we can't all be wrong. Today my employees are all nice, responsible and dedicated. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Building a strong culture requires hiring the right people, firing the wrong people and managing the work environment. There's an old saying: "A fish rots from the head down." Corollary: It also rocks from the top.

Jay Goltz employs 104 people at Artists Frame Service, Chicago Art Source and Jayson Home & Garden, all based in Chicago. He is the author of The Street-Smart Entrepreneur (Addicus Books).  To top of page

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