Why Great Businesses Start with Great Culture

Greg Hull SapphireIt’s a cliché that a business’ greatest asset is its people and it’s only half true. A business’ greatest asset is its people when they are aligned, motivated and passionately committed to our collective success – otherwise they’re just a cost.

I have the good fortune to meet hundreds of entrepreneurs and see what makes their businesses tick. All of the most successful businesses have one thing in common – a clearly defined, aligned and powerful culture. Great business starts with great culture.

At the core of Good to Great, Jim Collins’ excellent book about what drives business greatness, are three key principles:

1) Understand what you can be best in the world at

2) Understand your key economic drivers

3) Understand what you believe in and are deeply passionate about

In my experience, the most important of these is the last. Because by galvanising your team behind a common set of beliefs – a common culture – you create the environment in which the other two are possible. And, in my experience, it all starts with ‘why’.

Creating a ‘why’ business

Great businesses are ‘why’ businesses because their people are aligned behind and engaged in a single, common purpose. That alignment in a shared belief drives excellence, creativity, innovation and sheer hard work. To quote Simon Sinek, “when people believe in what you believe in they’ll work with their blood, sweat and tears. When they don’t believe in what you believe in they’ll work for your money”.

In other words, culture is an asset because it allows for all the future wealth-generative stuff to happen. Without a great performance culture it’s hard to see how a business can build any significant assets. It’s hard to see how a business can innovate.

The late great Steve Jobs once said, “innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how they’re led, and how much you get it.”

Innovation, growth and wealth are sourced in great culture; great culture comes from a shared belief; belief comes from inspiring leadership. And inspiring leadership is, of course, our job – the CEO’s job.

Your role as a great CEO

It is our job to set and articulate the ‘why’ for our business. It is our job to inspire and not just to have a great strategy. People are always inspired by ‘why’ more than ‘what’. To quote Simon Sinek again, “Martin Luther King did not stand up in front of a quarter of a million people in Washington Mall in August 1963 and say ‘I have a plan’”.

Stating your beliefs and articulating the dream is our day job. A great question to ask yourself – and your team – is; does your business deserve to exist? Would the world be poorer without it?’

Clarify your business purpose

That should help clarify what purpose your business serves. One of the great joys of a private business is that we can pursue a purpose that is not shackled by narrow shareholder interests.

Ajaz Ahmed is the inspirational Founder of AKQA, a half-billion valuation British digital success story, who is absolutely clear that: “making money has never been our intention and yet, commercially, we outperform our competitors. Right from day one, we have had the clear intention to ‘help our clients to create the future’”.

So take the time, this year, to uncover and agree of the culture you want to create for your business. What purpose do you serve?

Finding your ‘why’ is the fundamental source of your performance culture. A great culture creates innovation, growth and freedom. It is the source of any truly great business.

This piece was written by John Rosling, author of The Secrets of Seven Alchemists (Harriman House).

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