“Good companies have good cultures by chance. World-class companies have world-class cultures by design.”—David Friedman.
Company culture can mean different things to different people. Some use it to describe an organization’s operational outlook or employee perks, while others use it to define the attitudes and behaviors within the company and how they contribute to the overarching organizational mission.
Renowned author, speaker, and business leader David Friedman described company culture as “getting your people to live and internalize the behaviors that drive success in your company.” This assessment hit home for us, underscoring the critical importance of devoting resources to promoting behaviors that would help cultivate a strong culture, so we could fulfill our dream of positioning the company to thrive for generations.
Committing to developing a strong company culture allowed us to discover several unexpected and surprising benefits that profoundly impacted our personal and professional lives, including:
More purposeful and meaningful work beyond financial gain
Higher employee satisfaction, helping KMM attract and retain top-quality talent
Increased opportunities for sustainable and life-changing personal and professional growth
Solid foundation to promote KMM’s legacy
Our journey to reap these rewards involved deep introspection, strategic collaboration, and a generous dose of humility. Following are six lessons we learned along the way to serve as inspiration for developing your own strong company culture.
Lesson #1: An Antidote to Burnout and Frustration at Work
In a personal video on our blog, I (Shegda) shared a story of discovering the incredible power of developing a strong company culture after struggling with burnout at work. In the late 2000s, I was working harder and harder running our family business—M&S Centerless Grinding—but it was never enough to keep me satisfied. I finally discovered I lacked purpose in my work beyond financial gain. Through an introspective process involving professional coaching, I finally understood I—and my company—were starving for more meaning, so I decided to begin developing a stronger company culture that would be good for the business and the people who work there.
When I (Wilhelm) embraced the idea of developing a strong company culture, I was in frustration mode running my family business—KVI. It seemed like our people weren’t aligned and weren’t pulling the cart in the same direction. I realized everyone could benefit if they had less pushback from others—stress levels would be lower, and people would be happier. That’s when I discovered a company culture-defining framework for shaping how I wanted our team to show up to work and what we wanted to be every day.
Lesson #2: Trusted Business Leaders Are Invaluable Guides and Resources
As we learned the basics of developing a strong company culture, we immersed ourselves in executive workshops, lectures, and networking events through leadership groups and organizations like Vistage. I (Shegda) also worked with a business coach who helped me think differently about the connection between work and life purpose, inspiring me to develop a values-based company culture, in part, to create more meaning in my work. Our extensive outreach gave us access to a vast network of executive leaders that would become integral to our success.
We also pored over leadership articles, research, and books by celebrated authors like Tom Foster and corporate culture strategists like Elliott Jacques, noting and retaining inspiring nuggets that would inform the trajectory of our culture-strengthening blueprint.
Lesson #3: Behaviors Supporting a Company’s Core Values Matter Most
Early on, we discovered our company’s core values and mission statements weren’t as important as we once thought because their abstract nature makes them challenging to operationalize. We realized instead we would need to define specific value- and mission-supporting behaviors that are fundamental to the company’s success, and that’s how we would begin cultivating a strong company culture.
We took different approaches in drafting culture-defining behaviors, with John choosing to focus on the “why” of the behavior, asking, “What do I stand for? What do I want to see? What do I think is important?” The list of purpose-driven behaviors was coined “Fundamentals.”
At his own company, Eric involved his management teams in helping him define the “how,” allowing him to operationalize the behaviors that would bring the most success. These operation-focused behaviors were dubbed “Keys” before ultimately being integrated into the 20 Fundamentals that define KMM’s company culture today.1
We believe the two distinct approaches to defining KMM’s success-driven behaviors complemented each other—the why and the how—allowing us to put our own stamp as leaders on creating a strong, values-based company culture.
Lesson #4: Develop New Routines to Put Culture-Defining Behaviors into Practice
Embedding defined behaviors into the company culture requires a consistent commitment. We realized the only way to get teams to internalize and master the behavior was through repetition. So, we ritualized the Fundamentals we crafted, creating sustainable routines that put each one into practice.
Every week, the KMM team focuses on one fundamental behavior for five to 15 minutes in all-company meetings. We, along with our leadership team, open the floor to employees to discuss the week’s behavior, stories, and why it is essential to the company’s success, effectively creating their own business culture language.
At first, our team just listened, and then they began to share. They opened up and cited practical examples, insights, and perspectives on fundamental behaviors like inspiring passion, earning respect, or acting boldly with conviction. It is an opportunity to have a deeper conversation and create meaning behind what we do.
This weekly ritual has helped profoundly ingrain the desired behaviors for success into the KMM company identity. As a result, we can see our profound impact on employee attitudes, how they respond to challenges, and how they treat others.
After 11 years, the teams have never missed discussing a Fundamental in the weekly all-hands meetings, and we never let the routine get old. Our dedication to ritualism has created an unbreakable adherence to the Fundamentals, and the KMM culture keeps getting stronger.
If you can’t live these behaviors every day, the strength of your company culture will suffer because employees won’t take it seriously. But, if you commit to them, they can truly define your company and influence how you work and live.
Lesson #5: Prioritize Culture Alignment Higher Than Technical Skills
Developing a strong company culture has been an incredible hiring tool for attracting and retaining top-quality employees. In an industry notoriously prone to high turnover, a focus on maintaining a strong company culture forces KMM hiring leaders to prioritize values alignment higher than technical skills with excellent results.
In the beginning, there was some fallout when people didn’t fit our values. Sometimes, the misalignment meant it didn’t work out for certain people at our company—and that’s okay. Here we are 12 years later, bigger, better, and stronger together. We’ve worked hard to build a management team that’s highly aligned with our Fundamentals. We’ve gained much success with this strategy, which makes work fun. We love going to work each day.
Lesson #6: Ask for (and Listen to) Anonymous Employee Feedback
A strong company culture requires buy-in at every employee level. It is critical we stay in touch with our team’s experiences and perceptions. Tools like Culture Amp allow KMM’s HR team to track the employee experience by anonymously surveying staff quarterly to request feedback. We want to know how everyone is doing, their frustrations, what they love, and anything people want to share—and we never shy away from listening and responding to doubts or tough-to-hear feedback.
KMM has a high employee engagement rate with this tool, registering positive feedback more than 80% of the time, with most employees responding they feel welcome, heard, and supported. It is interesting to note, however, that one and a half years ago, we received the same criticism from several people regarding a lack of communication. We were shocked. We thought we communicated well but quickly learned that you can never overcommunicate. We responded by amping up our efforts by having weekly standup meetings in each department, employee development meetings, and performance and financial presentations for all employees. These kinds of changes in response to employee feedback help keep our culture strong.
Cultivating a strong company culture is beneficial not only to the bottom line, but also to the personal and professional well-being of your team. As we continue to share the lessons we learned and the success we have achieved from developing a strong business culture, we hope to inspire other leaders to invest in strengthening their cultures, too.
Every company has a company culture, whether its leaders know it or not. So, why not take control and align yours with your vision rather than allow it to take its own path?