Creating and maintaining a positive corporate culture

As a small company, it’s important to define the conduct that makes you who you are as an organization.

How do you create a strong culture that aligns with organizational objectives to drive outcomes? It’s a question large companies have been addressing for years; smaller organizations, not so much.

“Really small companies have even more to gain by getting culture right because one person or very few can have a real impact positively or negatively on culture,” says Marty Parker, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Waterstone Human Capital, creator of Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures program (an awards program that recognizes companies with cultures that enhance performance and competitive advantage). Corporate culture is the collective behaviour of an organization. It’s how you do things, and how you do things drives performance.

Consider the numbers: over the 11 years of the program, winners have outpaced companies on the S&P/TSX 60 by 850% when it comes to three-year average revenue growth. “Too often smaller firms are not purposeful when it comes to culture. They let it unfold and that’s not always a good thing,” says Parker.

He offers the following advice on creating and maintaining a positive culture.

Identify the culture you have. Ask HR or a third party to undertake a qualitative culture assessment. Talk to people and observe. Understand how things get done and how people are rewarded. What are the norms? Organizations typically come up with five to eight behaviours that identify their culture.

“In my organization, one of the core behaviours we look for is net energy contributors. That means you bring more energy to the room than you take out,” Parker says. “It doesn’t mean every day is a great day and you’re bouncing around — it just means you are positive in how you interact.”

Support the conduct you want to introduce. It’s OK to say there are one or two things your firm needs to evolve toward. Recognize that’s not your firm today.

For example, if you say you want your firm to be more innovative, then you have to set aside time for people to come up with new ideas.

Catch people doing things right and recognize them. Too often in work environments people don’t receive positive reinforcement although it’s important. “Companies are so good at measuring outcomes, but not very good at measuring the qualitative, yet it’s behaviour that drives outcomes,” says Parker. “Measure the behaviours that you’ve identified represent your culture. For example, resourcefulness is one of our key behaviours. We look for opportunities to recognize people who go above and beyond in terms of finding things out. On the flip side, if you have a high performer who is not displaying the behaviours you want, you could have a problem because others may emulate [him or her]. It’s about how you achieve the outcome, not the outcome [itself ].”

Communicate, communicate, communicate. In order to achieve cultural change you have to get people to live the philosophy. That can only happen if leaders are constantly talking about it and modelling the desired behaviour.

As a small company, it’s important to define the conduct that makes you who you are as an organization. Understanding your culture will help when hiring new people and assessing existing staff. “Of course skills are important, but you also want to know how a person gets the job done and whether it fits with the environment you are trying to create,” says Parker.

“Focus on the hows. If you do, your results are going to be substantial because people are going to have a higher level of engagement, they’re going to like what they are doing more, they are going to enjoy the environment and as a result they will perform better.”

About the Author

Taryn Abate


Taryn Abate, CPA, CA, CPA (ILL.), is a principal in the Research, Guidance and Support group at CPA Canada.

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