A Great Small Business Culture Isn’t Really About Playing Ping-Pong

It seems like whenever you read about companies with great cultures, there’s a focus on their game rooms, stocked refrigerators, and other amenities that offer brief diversions for employees. These are things that big companies can afford to offer, but many smaller companies often don’t have the budgets for.

Fortunately, although these perks do create a fun work atmosphere and provide opportunities for employees to recharge during the day, I don’t believe they’re essential to building an engaging company culture that enables employees to jump in with both feet, enjoy their job and have a satisfying career.

What’s more, for the big companies that do have successful cultures, these amenities aren’t the catalyst that creates the culture. There are some underlying values and behaviors that can’t be ignored—the occasional rousing game of ping-pong not withstanding.

If you have a small business and would like to create a culture that enables your employees to succeed and facilitates an atmosphere where your customers are treated well by every employee, here are five things you should consider:

  1. Your employees want to be part of something bigger than they are. Do your employees know why you’re in business? Have you shared with them the vision behind what you’re doing? Most people want to know that what they’re doing has more meaning than simply increasing revenue for you. Making sure they understand the greater value your products or services provide will help them engage in your vision. This doesn’t need to be in terms of a mission statement on the wall, but everyone in your company should know why they’re there.

There’s an apocryphal anecdote of a visit President Kennedy made to NASA in the early days of the space program. There were rumors of dissent concerning the race to the moon. After entering the building, and before his meeting, the President cordially greeted a janitor and asked, “How are you doing? What are you up to?”

The janitor replied, “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” President Kennedy knew he didn’t need to meet with NASA leaders after all.

What would your employees say?

  1. Most people crave some autonomy to make decisions about their work. I’m convinced that those closest to the work understand it the best. In other words, if your employees know why they’re doing what they’re doing, giving them some autonomy regarding the specifics of how they do their work will usually enable them to perform at their best.

Japanese manufacturers revolutionized the production of automobiles, electronics and other consumer goods when they realized that you don’t inspect quality into the manufacturing process. Instead, you empower every worker to be responsible for quality, and make it possible for them to stop production immediately if there’s a problem so it can be fixed. Edward Deming tried to share this approach with American Automobile manufactures in the 1950s, but it was companies like Toyota, Sony, Panasonic and Mitsubishi that changed the world by embracing these ideas.

While touring a Casio plant outside of Tokyo a few years ago, there was a framed sign in every room I visited that read, “Mainichi Kanzen” or “Every Day, Perfection.” It was there to remind everyone that quality was his or her responsibility and that focus never went away. It couldn’t be ignored for even a day. If you can foster that type of attitude within your small business, your employees with thrive and you will have incredibly loyal customers. You can’t put a price on that type of dedication to quality.

  1. Do all your employees know what success looks like? This might seem like a silly question, but believe me, it isn’t. Over the course of my career, I’ve met very few people who show up to work with the attitude, “Today I wanna suck.” Most of them want to do their best, make a difference and succeed. Unfortunately, we sometimes train that out of them by the way we manage them.

I once led a team of young creatives in an advertising agency. For most of them, it was their first job out of college and they were eager, but inexperienced. My job was to lead them to success—both personally and as a company. I purposely use the word lead, because I felt my responsibility was not to micro-manage them, but rather lead them to what I thought success was, remove roadblocks or impediments that kept them from performing at their best, and then get out of their way.

We regularly talked about my expectations for them—what I thought success looked like—and I gave them pointers along the way. We regularly celebrated their successes, and when they occasionally dropped the ball (which happens to everyone), they recognized it—so I didn’t need to come down on them. They were empowered to make decisions about their work, they took pride in what they did, and they gave me 110 percent effort every day. It wasn’t always perfect, but they were successful and that made me successful.

  1. A little recognition goes a long way. I’m not suggesting a participation trophy or a gold star on the forehead, but most people like to know their work is valuable and appreciated (remember No. 1 above). Sometimes all it takes is a friendly word, but insincere platitudes always fall flat.

Earlier in my career I worked with a man who walked into the office one day and said something like, “You guys are awesome. I’m not sure where we’d be without you.” Unfortunately, he didn’t come off to his employees like he thought he would, and after he left they all commented about how insincere he was. His good intentions fell flat.

I’m convinced that recognition needs to be specific. For example, “Great job, Jones,” doesn’t have as much impact as, “Thanks Jones. We never would have been able to get that contract without the extra effort you put in. I want you to know I appreciate X, Y and Z that you did to get the contract.”

  1. Transparency is just as important as visibility. Most business owners want visibility into what’s being done and how it’s being done. It’s understandable; visibility is a critical part of business success. Without metrics it’s hard to know how you’re doing.

That being said, I’m convinced that transparency is just as important. Early in my career I worked for someone who made sure we always knew what the goals were. We kept track of how we were performing on a weekly basis, and the three of us would move heaven and earth to meet those objectives. We knew what success looked like, we were responsible for it, we saw the greater vision for what we were doing, and were empowered to make decisions on the fly to positively impact the result and remain true to our underlying mission.

A ping-pong table can be a lot of fun to occasionally reduce the stress of a busy day, but I’m convinced taking these five things to heart is what’s really important when it comes to building a strong company culture.

Ty Kiisel is a contributing author focusing on small business financing at OnDeck, a technology company solving small business’s biggest challenge: access to capital. With over 25 years of experience in the trenches of small business, Ty shares personal experiences and valuable tips to help small business owners become more financially responsible. OnDeck can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.