Top 100 Tips for Businesses – #12 Company Culture


The culture of success – what’s yours?

Do you know what your business culture is – and are you using this powerful tool to the max?

Leadership, management, and team development specialist Fiona Wales, of Beverley-based Dare Greatly, said too many companies aren’t, and if not they’re really missing a trick.

We interviewed her about what culture is, why it’s so important and how to cultivate a good one.

Fiona has worked in leadership and management development for almost 20 years, including for some major names from the retail and financial services spheres.

She said one thing she’s realised over the years, is that their Culture isn’t necessarily what businesses think it is.

“The acid test of any company culture isn’t so much what you say it is, but how it really feels to work there,” according to Fiona.

“A lot of companies tend to focus on what their goals are and what their strategy is to achieve those goals, and somewhere along the line you will see value statements, such as ‘one team’ or ‘mutual respect’ or ‘collaborative working’.

“But, although less tangible in some ways, the culture will really define whether any or all of these values are true.”

Other things getting in the way.

Fiona added that, although bigger businesses are increasingly aware of the importance of culture, in many respects smaller enterprises are still playing catch up.

“In bigger businesses, they will usually have defined values and these will be visible everywhere from their website to their recruitment adverts and their internal employee appraisals,” she said.

“However, with smaller businesses it is usually a little more hit and miss.”

So, why is that?

Do you generally find that businesses focus on the must haves like job profiles or job descriptions, recruitment contracts? Does culture often fall away by the way side?

“To some degree, this comes down to businesses focusing first of all on the must-haves such as job descriptions, role profiles and recruitment contracts,” she continued.

“In this scenario culture can fall by the wayside, because they see it as something where the benefits are a little bit harder to define and measure, and possibly as a harder nut to crack.

“But the reality is that it is intrinsically linked to business performance and many companies lose a lot of good people because the culture they sign up to isn’t what is displayed in people’s behaviour and doesn’t fit with their personal values and something just doesn’t feel right. When things like this start to happen, the impact is directly felt on the bottom line.

“Peter Drucker, a famous management guru, said ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ and I see this proved true time and time again.”

So, would Fiona go as far as saying that – without a clear and embedded culture, business strategies can’t achieve their full potential?

Business leaders do need to understand how their people behave and why, and what they actually want from them, from a cultural point of view, to get the very best of them” added Fiona.

“And your strategy will be much more successful if everyone is clear about that and pulling in the same direction.”

So what about smaller businesses?

It’s a basic fact of life that small businesses are pulled in all directions, trying to meet a multitude of different priorities with limited resource in order to grow. In this context, is spending time developing culture really worth it for them?

Fiona thinks so.

“From my perspective, it is vital for every company, whether it’s made up of just one person, or a team of 10 or even 100, every company leader should think about setting the tone for their business culture, asking themselves questions like ‘what image do I want to portray?’ and ‘how do I want my company to be seen by  all the people who come into contact with it?’

So why is culture so important?

“It is all about how people behave, as individuals and towards one another. Defining what you want that to be is one thing but you also need to remember that different words have varying meanings for different people,” said Fiona.

“It’s common to think about the image you want to portray to your customers, but it’s equally important to consider how that plays out within your organisation, because ultimately that is the true impact you will have externally and if it’s not embedded, your branding will ring hollow anyway.

“If you use the stick of rock analogy, when you buy some in Brighton you expect to see the name Brighton written all the way through, and you won’t be happy if you get Blackpool instead.”

So what makes culture?

“In both small and large businesses, it’s going to come principally from the person that leads the company, from their own personal values and drivers – for example, if they are really results driven or are believe in putting customers first,” said Fiona.

“Do they believe in collaboration? Are they driven by innovation, service or sales?

“Whatever is right for a particular business, it needs to be fundamentally true, and you need to ‘walk the talk’. It’s no good speaking volumes about tolerating genuine mistakes, for example, and then publicly dressing an employee down because they get something wrong.

“So, culture is made up of both the direction the boss sets from the top, the behaviours that actually happen on a daily basis and the experience everyone has of those – internally and externally – from their own personal point of view.

“The initial lead needs to come from the top, but what needs to follow is a two-way process. There’s another famous saying that ‘attitudes get caught not taught’ and this is so true. People need to be involved in the development of culture to truly buy into it and bring it do life day-by-day’.”

Fiona’s four essential steps to developing your company culture

  1. Firstly, analyse yourself as a company owner, and anyone else involved in direction-setting for the business. Work out what matters most to you, and what drives you. Analyse it by asking questions like ‘is this really true?’, ‘what does it mean?’, ‘how will this affect our behaviour?’ and ‘can we demonstrate it consistently?’ Draw up your shortlist based on your personal beliefs and values, what is best for the company and all its people.
  2. Sense check your shortlist with a variety of people. Explain your thought process and why you believe these things are important, and then ask them questions like ‘what would this mean to you?’. You are checking that you have alignment, and that your proposed culture is both right and doable. Although you’re setting the direction it’s important that you have the agreement of those around you before you introduce a new culture. Be open to ideas at this point and be prepared to take any challenges that emerge on the chin and adapt accordingly.
  3. You might find you end up with a multitude of different things that are important for you but too difficult to implement into the business in one go. If this happens, pick from those ten those that are the most important.  An ideal culture would have three-to-five things to work at.
  4. Get everyone in your team on-board and engaged. There are different strategies for doing this, so the one you opt for will depend on the size of your organisation. If you are a small business doing this for the first time, keep it simple. It could be as straightforward as having discussions around a table, or maybe socialising and going for a pint, in a setting that is not overly formal. It’s just about getting people’s genuine ideas, taking feedback and formulating it into a plan.

What difference can the right culture make?

“When companies get culture right, they end up with a team of people who want to do the best they can and are motivated to achieve the company’s objectives and the strategies.

“They are engaged in why they are there and understand how they are expected to treat one another.

“This also results in a genuine feeling that they can have honest conversations and opinions, that they will be listened to and something will happen as a result, which dramatically improves engagement.

“Conversely, without this, you can end up with a disengaged team, where people do not feel supported, don’t feel part of things and generally end up leaving and seeking out an environment that does suit them, which – apart from anything else – costs the business money.”

The acid question – just what difference does this make to the bottom line?

“Getting the culture right can increase a business’s output by up to 50 per cent. This is because people will naturally give more to something they feel more passionate about and engaged in, and that’s where you start to benefit from things like discretionary effort – because your employees will have a genuine interest in the company doing well and want to go that extra mile,” said Fiona.

Examples of great culture

“The one I always point to is Virgin,” she added.

“The core cultural message comes really clearly from Richard Branson. He is not actively involved in every part and parcel that is branded Virgin anymore, but his ethos of treating your employees well so that they treat your customers well, shines through.

“They have a team-based, collaborative agenda, so that staff members don’t feel like they are on their own – they have people they can go to for support.

“Then, if something goes wrong, they have a failure plan. They accept that mistakes happen because we are all human beings, and the way to recover from them is to investigate what went wrong, learn the lesson and do something differently next time.”

Five cultural pitfalls to avoid

  • People saying one thing and doing another.
  • Expecting employees to take the journey to understanding your new culture far quicker than you did yourself.
  • Losing your bottle because the new culture doesn’t gel immediately or something goes wrong, and reverting back. Once you start your journey, it’s vital that you carry on with the plan.
  • Know what your stages and expectations for each one are.
  • Not expecting people to be fearful of change. It’s human nature so don’t judge your work force when they challenge and give them chance to get used to the ideas you’re proposing.

If you’ve found this blog thought-provoking and would like to discuss any aspect of it with Fiona, who is a partner in our James Legal – The Business 2017 campaign, you can contact her via or on 07778 409909. You can also discover more about Fiona from her website at

Or, if you need help with the legal aspects of organising your workforce – from contracts of employment to social media policies, or advice when you stop seeing eye-to-eye, give us a call on (01482) 225566 or email

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