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Culture in small businessCulture is one of those terms that unless you are a scaling start-up or a large corporate, it can be challenging to define. But there are some great lessons small business can take from organisations who get results through outstanding culture, and as a smaller business – those changes are usually a lot more agile to implement.

It has been found that organisations that focus on culture in their strategy have suitably better business outcomes, more engagement and productivity. According to research completed by Gallup, there is a direct link between employees’ understanding of their organisations purpose and culture, and measures of business health.

Among U.S. employees, four in 10 strongly agree that, “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.” By moving that ratio to eight in 10 employees, a business could see a 41% reduction in absenteeism, 50% drop-in work-related incidents and a 33% improvement in quality.

What is culture? How is it defined?
I define culture as being symptomatic of whatever is going on in your business. Your culture is formed, moulded, perhaps manipulated through actions and behaviours, expectations, the way you make decisions, set up systems and processes, undertake business with clients, allocate work and provide learning opportunities. It is influenced in the way you as the business owner role models the values and behaviours.

If we were to look at some successful companies and the focus they have on culture, we would probably look to leaders such as Netflix, Google and Airbnb. All household names – and partly because of the benefits they enjoy from having a great culture. Netflix are infamous for publishing their Culture Deck that outlines all the initiatives for building and maintaining a great culture. From the way they recruit to the way they manage performance – even how they encourage collaboration, Netflix enjoy values around a Great Workplace. It’s not all about benefits packages or ping pong tables, rather, it means they have ‘stunning colleagues’. They have values around Context, not Control in which they set up the framework for operating, as opposed to putting in place layers of approval to get work done. Their values have a foundation of freedom and responsibility. And this is mirrored in the culture.

Culture management
Now, to look at companies who have faced a crisis, we could look to the likes of Uber – who just last year faced a tirade of negative press for outcomes reflective of their culture. In the space of just a few short weeks, the company faced allegations of sexual harassment, a lawsuit over stolen technology and video dashboard footage of their founder losing his wig at a driver. Taking a deeper dive into the reason behind the series of disasters, their values were stacked in favour of competition with a win at all costs approach to doing business. Combined with a ‘do what it takes’ attitude and core values of ‘Fierceness’ and ‘Super Pumped-ness’, the tolerance of competitiveness meant stepping on others to get the job done. This downplayed collaboration and respect and promoted a work environment that bred negative energy and poor practices that were tolerated – even celebrated.

As a business owner, you can take some key learnings from these cultures and use it to your advantage. Here are 5 ways to set up a successful culture in your small business:

1. Give freedom & flexibility
Provide the outcomes and let your team work with you on how they get there. Be open to creative ways to achieve – and let go of policies, processes and systems that don’t enable or provide direction to work within. If there are no adverse outcomes to the financial, reputational or people aspects of a business, then the risk should be low. Define the measures of success and let people determine the journey.

“There is no clothing policy at Netflix, but no-one has come to work naked lately”
– Patty McCord, 2004

2. Be clear about expectations
Think about setting expectations first around the 3R’s – roles, rules, results.

Roles: What are the roles within your organisation and how are they executed? Are they clear and meaningful? Do they provide autonomy? Do they empower your people – or leave them feeling like a slave to the boss or client? Ensure that responsibilities are clear and people are able to work to their strengths. Look to build roles that maximise collaboration and give people the opportunity to grow

Rules: Ensure that the rules in your business enable your people – not disable or provide unnecessary bureaucracy. Sure, there are some activities that require strict levels of compliance, so do that to help people achieve positive outcomes, not to put up blockers to how they achieve. Make sure you are clear in policies, guidelines and procedures where necessary, use trust in place of anything else.

Results: What is the result you or the client needs? Don’t assume that your team know exactly what is needed, check in, discuss, and explain the importance of the results to them, and how their contribution will make a difference to business.

3. Role model your values
Be clear about what your company stands for. Values are enacted through behaviours and although those values may not be fully formed yet, they are implicit – what you do as the leader will have a large bearing on values. For example, if you are providing services in the wellness industry and ask your team to speak at a tobacco company event, ask yourself – does that align with what your company is trying to achieve? Culture is as much about your external brand as the internal. Employees work for you because of what you and your business, represent.

As a leader you must live and breathe your mission and values. I had an experience a few years ago with a company who stated that their values were transparency and respect, yet they were keeping all new business proposals secret from their staff – while having them work on strategies for those very proposals! The misalignment meant a missing piece in the purpose for employees, and a missed opportunity for the company to build loyalty and trust.

4. Recognise your staff for where they are
When you hire an employee, recognise where they are and help them along the journey to grow while they are with you. Put great energy into their transition into the organisation, the onboarding process is the first taste they get of your company culture and how much they are valued. Get to know them personally and how they like to be recognised – you may be surprised to know that for most people it is not all about the money! Understand what motivates and enables each person to do their best work. Think creatively about development opportunities for them and have them guide this with the organisation’s support. Always consider how to empower, enlighten and engage your team members on an individual and team level.

CFO: What happens if we train them and they leave?
CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

5. Be deliberate about HOW
It’s easy to be focussed on what you need done – not so easy on how you do it. According to Deloitte there are five levers for culture:

  • infrastructure and environment
  • business and operational processes
  • people practices
  • symbols and rituals
  • leadership behaviour.

Across all aspects of how you do business, there are impacts to the way a culture is determined. I worked with an organisation some time ago that had a no-approach procedure in their communications guideline. This procedure stated that even though they worked right next to each other, team members were to ping each other on Slack (a communication platform) before interrupting other team members.

That one policy meant employees stopped communicating directly with each other and did EVERYTHING via Slack or email. It stifled collaboration and impacted relationships, causing a distorted culture where conflict was rife. This example demonstrates all the levers of culture that Deloitte states and reinforces that what you do – or fail to do – creates your culture.

As Netflix demonstrate & Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince one wrote:

‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the
work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.’

A positive culture will form when behaviours and actions are enacted in a resourceful way, with respect, empathy and with intention. Do business with your people in mind and you will be able to enable a culture that promotes better business success. 


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Lorissa GarciaAbout Lorissa Garcia
Lorissa Garcia is a seasoned HR professional, whose passion is engaging in insightful and intelligent conversations with People practitioners around culture, capability and making workplaces more human-centered.

Lorissa supports individuals, teams and organisations as a Coach,  Mentor, Facilitator and Consultant.

Visit her website for more info and to see her full bio.

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