Three Common Small Business Culture Mistakes

The culture of an organization is often tied very closely to its success. And yet, it has been my experience that most small businesses are not very good at “that culture thing.” If you ask the owners of small businesses about the culture of their organization, many give you a blank look. Others tend to respond with the description of their personal approach: “I run my business based on good customer service.” Or, they just shrug and say, “I have good people and they work hard. We are small and don’t have a lot of time to think about things like culture. That is for big business, not us.”

 
Unfortunately, these small businessmen and women are failing to use a highly effective tool that can increase productivity, reduce turnover, build loyalty and actually improve customer service. While they may look at each of these issues individually, they often don’t connect the dots to realize that each of these areas can be improved by improving the culture of the organization.
 

In fact, the first mistake made by small business leaders is the assumption that they don’t have a culture. That is probably the reason for the blank stares. Yet, the truth is that every organization has a culture. Most often, it happens accidentally. It is not unusual that culture exists without any recognition by the owner. This results in the owner making decisions without understanding how or why that decision will resonate, be adopted or ignored.

 

The second culture mistake I see frequently is that the owner believes the “culture is X” while at the employee level, the “culture is Y.” The passion of a small businessperson leads him or her to believe that everybody is committed to a specific culture. It is common to get very different answers about the culture of the organization depending on whom you ask. For example, many small business people truly believe they have a culture that is supportive of their work force, and are shocked to discover the belief is often wrong.

 

For example, I recently spoke with a law firm partner who could not understand why so many good female attorneys left the firm. After listening for a while, I learned the firm was looking for the answer by conducting exit interviews. They got such disparate reasons; they decided there was absolutely nothing they could do about it. However, when I started probing about the culture of the firm as it related to female attorneys, the light seemed to come on. I suggested the firm needed to begin examining the organization’s culture for the answer rather than relying solely on exit interviews to answer their questions.

 

The third mistake is a belief that culture cannot be proactively developed or changed in a small business. This is interesting since many would argue culture is most important in small teams where there is close daily interaction over a long period of time. Interestingly, small business owners are willing to spend a lot of time and money on changing computer systems, web pages, and suppliers but seem unwilling to spend even a little time on producing the culture that could enhance their success.

  

How can culture be changed in a small business? Like all change, it begins with awareness, followed by a commitment to change and then undertaking the effort needed to create the desired culture. Communication is the key. Find out what your culture is by discussing it openly. If that sounds scary, ask a consultant for help. Then, develop and adopt a plan for changing the culture. Communicate it clearly and make it a priority. Finally, recognize that, as with every aspect of business, things change constantly, including culture. Keep asking and keep communicating. Small business owners need to work just as hard at cultural excellence as they do in every other aspect of their business. 

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