On the road again? As an entrepreneur, owning your business gives you the freedom to pursue a passion for travel so you can explore other cultures. At the same time, it can make it a bit of a challenge to build a strong culture at the office.
Fortunately, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. If you take the time and effort to put some proactive measures in places, your culture will thrive wherever your travels take you. Here’s how.
Regardless of whether you’re in the office each day or traveling the globe, the first step in building a company culture is to know who you are. At the heart of every company culture lies a strong sense of self, and it’s essential to share this with your team and your customers. Southwest Airlines, a company that is well-known for its strong culture, provides an excellent example of knowing itself and communicating that clearly to the public.
As an entrepreneur, you have a clear vision for the company you worked hard to build. You likely also have a strong sense of what you value as an organization. Perhaps customer service is the most important thing to you, and you believe integrity and transparency are the cornerstones of your business.
“I already know that,” you may be thinking, but do your employees? It’s essential that you model those values for them, so that they acknowledge, understand and take ownership of these elements of your culture so they can own it when you’re not around. If you’re not working in the same office with employees, take the time on conference calls and in emails to explain how goals and decisions tie back to the values you are reinforcing.
One way to share your vision and keep your culture alive while you’re traveling is to brand it, which gives your employees something to rally around even when you’re not there. If excelling in customer service is at the heart of your culture, come up with a slogan that represents it. Try creating a contest where employees submit a name that embodies your culture, and create an internal campaign around it. This could include an employee recognition program that rewards your team members for living out your culture with customers, as well as company celebrations when you hit your sales numbers or reach other goals.
You need to be at the forefront of these efforts, even when you’re on the road. You can accomplish this through sending out a quick email each week—from wherever you may be—acknowledging employees who excelled. Start your teleconferences with a quick “culture check-in” where you listen to employees discuss how they lived the culture since the last meeting and identify areas of improvement. Your culture is what you reward and acknowledge. When your employees see you embracing your culture in everything you do—and listening to their input about it—they’ll do the same.
How you treat your employees provides a model for how they should treat customers, so be sure to show them respect. Southwest Airlines has long been admired for its fun-loving and service-oriented culture, and its employees are known for going the extra mile for customers.
It’s no wonder, when co-founder, chairman emeritus and former CEO of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher believes this about company culture: “Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that.”
In your absence, you can accomplish this by empowering your employees to solve problems on their own. Have clear policies in place so employees know what they are—and aren’t—allowed to do to stay aligned with your company’s vision, values and goals, as Southwest Airlines’ employees do.
If your employees already know what they are allowed to do to accommodate the customer, you end up with a happy customer and an employee who knows the culture is the real deal—and takes ownership of it when you’re gone.
When you travel, you designate someone to be the point person on specific projects or with clients. Why not do the same with your company culture? Find a trusted employee who embodies your ideal company culture, and task him with keeping it alive when you’re out of town. Have regular check-ins while you’re away, whether via Skype, text or email, so you can keep your finger on the pulse of your culture.
This is helpful, say, if collaborative teamwork is one of your core values and a project team is leaving key players out of meetings. Your culture proxy can alert you to the situation before it escalates into a problem. Then you can check in with the involved parties, listen to their perspectives and work together to remedy the situation while keeping your culture on track.
No matter how great your remote meeting software, email server or cell phone is, none of it can completely replace face-to-face interaction. After all, your employees and customers are human. Take the time, effort and expense to hold in-person meetings on a regular basis, whether it’s a monthly off-site team huddle or a dinner with a project team.
You’ll have the opportunity to read body language, make eye contact and get to know the intricacies of your employees’ personalities that electronic communications tools can’t quite convey. It’ll pay dividends in terms of fostering your culture—something that will shine both inside and outside the walls of your business.
Busy travel schedules can make it challenging to create a company culture that is authentic and thriving, but it’s not impossible. With a combination of technology and old-fashioned face time—and employees who feel valued and heard—you can build a strong culture at your business whether you’re on the road or inside the building.