You Are Your Culture

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

— Peter Drucker

I never really understood how much my feelings affect the performance of my business until going through a deep depression and coming out the other side. My mood changed everything. And not necessarily for the better.

Culture can be the greatest asset of a business. It dictates how things are done…or not done. When you start a new company, you don’t think much about the culture, and almost not at all about how your mood can set the tone. But what you bring to work as a founder can create harmony or discord, result in boundless energy and growth or killing your strategy and any hope of engagement. Whether you wear your feelings on your sleeve or suppress them, they play a big role in the success of your business.

The remains of the day: my bike after my accident on Waverley Road

My mood over the years has been based in a driven desire to please clients, always coupled with a high dose of impatience. Looking back at it now, our culture focused on doing everything possible for our clients – going the extra mile and delivering excellence. We pushed ourselves hard to achieve growth and never stopped learning. That sounds great but it also spawned a high level of perfectionism and fear in order to meet my standards. One team member said she could tell what kind of day it would be when I walked in the door and saw the look on my face. Would it be duck and cover or friendly support? My mood affected our business and created a pseudo emergency ward – no one died but it was a high-stress environment. The business grew and made money but it was based on a fragile foundation.

When I finally hit the wall, I fell into a deep depression that lasted more than two years. I became deeply withdrawn and incredibly disengaged from the business. My team was left wondering where we were going and I had no energy to guide them. My mood became dark and inconsistent. I think everyone worked hard to try to ease my worries. But, at some point, the anxiety I exuded carried over to our culture and everyone in it.

Depression can make you question your decisions to the point of not being able to move forward. And, sadly, that became the culture of my business. It changed from a positive but charged environment to one of indecision and discomfort. People started to leave. I didn’t care. I could only think of getting away from it all. And my mood began to affect the bottom line as revenues and profits dropped.

I used cycling to help escape and manage my mood. But an encounter with a vehicle on Waverley Road left me broken, and my bike in pieces. I think everyone thought that would be the end. Yet it actually made me determined to do the right thing. I was proactive (overly so) in my recovery, to the extent that I was back on the road in three weeks (broken pelvis or not) and hitting my stride within six. And it also changed my mood with the business.

Unfortunately, it did not result in the happy ending you may have expected. The accident and recovery got me to see that things had to change – I had changed – and I needed to get out of the way of the great people around me. Together, we talked openly about the future of the business and decided to change the game. Everyone has moved on and now I get to see them succeeding in better places. And I am in a better place. My mood has definitely lifted and I feel more positive. And I’m starting a new business.

When you ignore the impact of your mood on your business and those around you, you actually put the success of your venture in peril. We talk about the importance of culture but do little to shape it. At the core of culture is your own mood and that is a connection not many entrepreneurs make.

By being proactive and intentional, you can shape the culture of your business. Your mood is contagious. The energy you bring to your venture is the energy that will pervade your team. I am not saying to slap a smile on and be happy every day – life just doesn’t work that way. But I am encouraging you to be aware of your mood and be authentic in your actions, understanding the impact they will have on your team, and your business. And don’t think you can hide it. Everyone knows how you feel whether you say it or not. Feeling shame or guilt about how you feel does no one any good. You need to be open to get everyone – you included – to a better place.

Culture can be a source of tremendous energy for your company. Alternatively, when you abdicate or ignore this responsibility, the culture can form in a way that drains energy. A strategy is only as effective as the people involved in executing the actions. Culture provides the guide for people’s focus, behaviors, and performance. Therefore, culture must be considered in the development and implementation of strategy. You really are the driver.

Many entrepreneurs take a conventional approach to motivation – inspirational chats, lists of rules, and setting up “people” committees. None of these routes work in the long term (or even the short term). Shaping culture is an ongoing activity for you as the leader of your business – gaining feedback on the perceptions of your mood (perception is reality); working hard to shape your energy to abide with your most valued behaviors, and having regular, personal conversations. No one else will buy into the culture if you don’t know and own what you are bringing to the business in real terms.

A positive culture provides confidence for the people in the business. If you become burned out, disillusioned, angry, disengaged or distracted, it hurts the culture and, therefore, the confidence of the team. Confidence affects performance – people can try but without an engaged leader modeling the culture of the business things go adrift. I believe this – it is personal for me. I know that my own distraction hurt our team and the bottom line.

To start shaping your own culture, think about the results you want, describe in practical words what behaviors will generate those results, communicate them personally and often, and model them always. If you don’t live them, no one else will.