If there’s one thing start-ups have in spades, it’s vision. If they didn’t, most of them wouldn’t make it through the first six months. Chances are, you know what you want your business to represent in the world: quality products, impeccable service and relationships. You want it to be profitable, certainly, but a white-hat success, built on the core values of hard work, integrity, and human relationships. It’s that compelling vision that keeps you going, when the stresses and sacrifices of running a new business threaten to pull you under.
But what happens when your business grows up? When you are not the one personally making all the decisions that drive your business. How do you make sure that the people under you share your vision? How can you build a meaningful corporate culture that will keep your business aligned with its core values even after you’re gone? It isn’t impossible, but it doesn’t happen by accident.
Write it down.
If it only exists in your head, it doesn’t exist. The most critical first step in building a thriving corporate vision is to put your values in words. You may know that the mission of your small corner bakery is to provide hand-crafted, all natural cupcakes and pastries, but if you don’t have a written mission statement then it’s really just a pipe dream. Without your vision to guide them, another manager could decide to increase profits by using packaged, frozen cookie dough instead of making it fresh. Your manager thinks she made a smart move; she cut costs and was able to pass on the savings to the customer in the form of lower prices. Her guiding principle is value, while yours is quality and freshness. Her decision was in direct opposition to your values, but you can’t blame her for it if you haven’t made those core values part of the institutional framework of your business. Put simply, if you want the people under you to adhere to your vision, you have to tell them what it is. Period.
Share your vision and reward value alignment.
Now that you have a mission statement, the next step is to put it into practice. Every employee should have a copy of the mission statement. Consider including a paper copy with your new hire paperwork, or print it on the cover of your employee handbook. Discuss the importance of these values during employee training, performance reviews, and board meetings. Let your mission statement be the driving force of your decision-making process, and let the people who work for you see the process in action.
Making sure your employees know your mission statement is a good start, but it’s not enough to make it part of the core culture of your business. Empower the people that work for you to internalize your values and make them their own. Think about ways to reward value alignment. Your core values should be at the heart of any incentive programs you offer: merit bonuses, salary increases, employee of the month programs, or other performance-based perks.
Extrinsic rewards such as salary bonus programs can reinforce desired behavior, but cultivating intrinsic motivators can be even more powerful. Starbucks Coffee provides a clear example of this process through their Coffee Master program. If you frequent Starbucks as much as I do, no doubt you have seen an occasional barista in a black apron with the words “Coffee Master” on the front. That apron isn’t just a fashion choice. It is awarded only to employees who have completed a voluntary six-month coffee training program including studying growing regions, processing methods, and sourcing practices. They have hosted community tasting events, passed a written exam, and proven their competency in blind tastings.
Serving the “world’s finest coffee” is central to Starbucks’ vision statement: “to establish Starbucks as the premier purveyor of the finest coffees in the world while maintaining our uncompromising principles as we grow.” The Coffee Master program provides an avenue for employees to internalize these core values, and it rewards them for their dedication and initiative by marking their achievement publicly. The black apron becomes a point of pride for baristas who are qualified to wear it. That pride is key: they have worked hard to align their efforts to the company’s core values and that alignment itself is the reward for their achievement, quite apart from any practical advantage or salary bonus they may receive for their troubles (Starbucks’ website does not specify on this point).
Empowering your employees may mean delegating more than you’re comfortable with. Remember that bakery we were discussing earlier? Let your assistant manager play more of a role in sourcing ingredients, now that she knows to choose fresh, locally grown blueberries, even if they cost a little bit more. Create a culture of ongoing value discourse, and your mission statement will be more than just a framed sentence on your conference room wall, but the guiding principle you intended it to be.