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With the right corporate culture, you'll have staff whose goals and values align with yours.




IT’S UNCLEAR WHO first said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, but it’s one of the great truths of running a business. Without the right culture, not much positive can get done. And indeed, with the wrong culture, ruin awaits.

Organizational cultures are tremendously powerful. From a pure business standpoint, they can raise standards, spur productivity and engagement, engender accountability, and boost employee retention and loyalty. They can ensure a pet’s welfare is held paramount or that every single worker is focused solely on the bottom line. They can attract the right people and deter the wrong ones from applying. And when the culture is aligned with your own personality and beliefs in how a business should run, just make coming to work a joy instead of a struggle.

As Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, has acknowledged, without its culture, his $125 billion company would be nothing: “The only competitive advantage we have is the culture and values of the company. Anyone can open up a coffee store. We have no technology; we have no patent. All we have is the relationship around the values of the company and what we bring to the customer every day.”

The power of culture is something that clearly most business owners understand. Almost 60 percent of the pet pros in our Brain Squad survey group said they “strongly agree” that culture was critical to their company’s performance and success.

Sal Salafia of Exotic Pet Birds in Webster, NY, says a strong culture not only allowed his company to keep his employees when rivals “all around” started throwing cash to hire workers in the last year, but that some of his team who fell ill with COVID-19 during the pandemic rushed to get back to their jobs as soon as they were given the all clear. “Our company culture has made it possible for us to do amazing things. We strongly believe it to be responsible for our success. Each person that joins becomes a part of our family here. We work to protect what we build together as a team, and everyone knows their part is important in its success.”

And yet as great as the benefits are, culture is also something most small-business owners don’t actively manage. This seems to be for two main reasons: First, that a view of management that reflects the traditional theory that business is essentially contractual: Employees exchange their labor for money and are motivated by incentives and kept in check by policies.

But the second probably bigger reason is that culture is fiendishly hard to control. Unlike technology, inventory or physical environments, culture is “wet.” It’s human and involves emotions, social connections, ingrained behaviors and psychology. And while culture is incredibly easy to spot — think of organizations like NASA, the U.S. Marines, Google and pet brands West Paw and P.L.A.Y. — it remains this nebulous, intangible thing that can be hard to corral.

It’s also one of the most difficult things to impose from the top down. This is partly because there is no one “best practice” model that can be implemented. Culture is inherently organic. It is made up of the unsaid stuff — shared values, expectations, social norms and pressures. It is the things people do when the boss is not around (which ultimately is probably the best definition of culture).


And annoyingly, it’s not like you can ignore it. Even if you don’t try to manage it, a culture will take root, sometimes for the worst. Katherine Ostiguy of Crossbones Dog Academy in Providence, RI, says, “Company culture is always being developed whether you’re cognizant of it or not. Make developing and nurturing your desired culture a priority, or you may wake up one day and realize your company is heading in a direction you never wanted it to go.”

According to management theory, cultures can be plotted against two axes running from tight to loose and from permissive to ordered and hierarchical.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, business professor Boris Groysberg and his team say cultures can be classified into eight types or styles:

  • CARING work environments are warm and collaborative, with a focus on relationships and mutual trust. This family-like set-up is one a lot of pet pros identify with.
  • PURPOSE is exemplified by shared ideals and contributing to a greater cause. Whole Foods before it was swallowed by Amazon was a good example.
  • LEARNING is characterized by an emphasis on innovation and creativity. Work environments are open-minded places that spark new ideas and support the exploration of alternatives. Failure is not considered a bad thing. Think Tesla.
  • ENJOYMENT is expressed through fun and excitement that is shared with customers. Zappos set the high bar for this kind of culture before it was consumed by Amazon. “Have fun. The game is a lot more enjoyable when you’re trying to do more than make money,” its late CEO Tony Hsieh said.
  • RESULTS is characterized by achievement, performance and winning. Wall Street typifies this approach.
  • AUTHORITY is defined by strength, often reflected by the leader, along with decisiveness and boldness.
  • SAFETY is defined by planning, caution and preparedness. Work environments are predictable places where people are risk-conscious and think things through carefully. Insurance companies and medical institutions, including veterinarians (“do no harm”), often fit this model.
  • ORDER is focused on respect, structure, and shared norms and traditions. The SEC would be an example of such a methodical place where people play by the rules, and leaders emphasize procedures and time-honored customs.

“Whereas some cultures emphasize stability — prioritizing consistency, predictability and maintenance of the status quo — others emphasize flexibility, adaptability and receptiveness to change,” Groysberg writes in Hbr Magazine. “Those that favor stability tend to follow rules, use control structures such as seniority-based staffing, reinforce hierarchy, and strive for efficiency. Those that favor flexibility tend to prioritize innovation, openness, diversity and a longer-term orientation.”

Most organizations are typically a mix or more than one style. Nearly all businesses — as commercial enterprises — are results-oriented to some degree, but a pet-care provider, for example, will be more focused on caring and safety than say a Wall Street investment bank. For a pet business owner, trust and the pet’s welfare are paramount. This will lead to a more measured approach to business and making money.

Although business cultures seem to rise and fall like fashion (the Silicon Valley model of smart failure, anti-hierarchy innovation seems to be all the rage at the moment), no one culture is inherently better or worse than another. For whatever problems the hyper competitive, money-focused Wall Street model may impose, it also drives a tremendous work ethic and does what it is supposed to — attracts bright young minds and brings in the money.

The key thing is that the culture is aligned/is a good fit with what the organization is trying to achieve.

For P.L.A.Y. Pet Lifestyle and You co-founders Will Chen and Deb Feng, that means building “a successful brand while doing good and making the world a better place, even if it’s just in our small ways, for our children. That core belief drives what we do and influences our decisions, from hiring to material sourcing,” Chen says.

At The Bark Market in Delavan, WI, the vibe is indie, friendly and upbeat for staff and customers. “Our culture evolved over the years without us really focusing on it. Now that we know we have one, we don’t take it for granted. Our customers feel they belong to a ‘community,’ and that’s what keeps people coming back, even though the big-boxes are nearby,” says Karen Conell.

For Ben Huber of Petagogy stores in Pennsylvania, it’s about having fun. “I say relax. We are selling pet supplies. There shouldn’t be any stress in that.”

As the chart above shows, our Brain Squad ranked “Caring” as their No. 1 cultural value with “Authority” the least desired.

The other thing about cultures is that they prevent behaviors as much as they promote them. You may want to foster cohesiveness, but too much groupthink can be dangerous. When “it’s the way we’ve always done things” dominates, that can spell disaster in a fast-changing world.

Few business owners profess to being 100 percent happy with their company cultures. Indeed, our Brain Squadders rated their satisfaction at a little over 7 out of 10.

It is tough. And turning a culture around takes time. Here we share tips on how to foster a driven, happy team whose goals and values are aligned with yours.

1. First, Listen

Founders obviously play a key role in setting company culture, but before too long, it starts taking on a life of its own and develops organically from the staff. Before you can change your store’s culture, you need to understand it and know how your staff views it. That requires spending time with them, discussing the issue and asking open-ended questions like:

  • What advice would you give a friend if they came to work here?”
  • Around here what’s really important?
  • Around here who fits in and who doesn’t?
  • What does it take to succeed here?/What behaviors get rewarded?
  • If you had a magic wand, what’s one thing you would change?

“Leaders think employees won’t open up,” says Joseph Grenny, a social scientist with training firm VitalSmarts. “But when an executive sits down and truly listens, employees will be surprisingly honest.”

Jennifer Thomas of Lucky Dog Pet Grocery & Bakery in Lawrence, KS, concurs. “Listen to staff. They tell you what they need. Take care of staff, and they will in turn take care of customers.”


2. Establish a Purpose

Nietzsche probably put it best: “He who has a why can bear with almost any how.” Purpose may not be your No. 1 cultural priority (it came in at No. 3 in our Brain Squad survey), but it needs to be articulated clearly to new hires, in your written core values as well as modeled and celebrated to reinforce a positive company culture. When workers feel connected to a purpose, they are more willing to try new things, take risks, and contribute to their organizations in new and valuable ways. “People who find meaning in their work don’t hoard their energy and dedication. They give them freely, defying conventional economic assumptions about self-interest. They do more — and they do it better,” say business professors Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor, writing in Harvard Business Review. When your business involves helping people bring better health to their pets, establishing purpose shouldn’t be difficult, but it can be overlooked in the day-to-day rush to get things done. Be sure to share the stories of pets’ lives improved, and comments from appreciative parents. “Hire people that share the same goals you do. If they understand why you do what you do, they will work with you not against you,” advises Nancy Guinn, co-owner of Dog Krazy stores in VA.

3. Articulate Your Vision

In his book Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, which tells of shoe company Zappo’s growth into a billion-dollar company, late founder Tony Hsieh recounted how he resisted for years publishing formal core values — “essentially a definition of our culture” — because he had thought of it as a very “corporate” thing to do. The delay, he says, was one of his bigger management mistakes as the core values become central to hiring, the way staff interact with each other and customers, and the way the company does business.

Hsieh’s ultimate 10-point list, which includes values such as Deliver WOW Through Service, Embrace Change, Create Fun and a Little Weirdness, Do More With Less and Be Humble, took a year to put together and was built on employee input.

Anna Woodcock says she’s applied a similar approach at her store, Brown Dog Bakery, in Ankeny, IA. “Don’t be swayed from your values. Write them down and live them. Refer to them often in decision making! It will keep you true to your vision.”

4. Focus on Vital Behaviors

When it comes to fostering cultural change, don’t worry about outcomes, focus on behaviors. Get those right and the outcomes will take care of themselves. Many managers understand this, but what most don’t appreciate is just how few high-leverage behaviors are needed to drive a lot of change, says BYU management studies professor Kerry Patterson in Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. Watch what your best performers are doing and try to determine the unique behaviors that make the difference, run mini experiments to verify your hunches, and then go about putting your findings into practice. He cited the case of a company that wanted to improve its service culture but had only one sales team that met its customer satisfaction targets. By observing them in action, it was found they did five things without fail: Smiled, made eye contact, identified themselves, let people know what they were doing and why, and ended every interaction by asking, Is there anything else that you need? Simple stuff but when implemented by other teams, the company got the desired results.


5. Promote Accountability

Defending the high standards of a culture requires peer accountability, so that workers of any level feel comfortable challenging one another when they see mediocrity. Indeed, on high-performing teams, peers manage the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to maintaining standards. Almost counter-intuitively, it is in weaker teams that bosses must enforce standards. (It goes without saying that in the weakest businesses, there is no accountability.) Regular weekly reviews can provide opportunities for mutual feedback and establish peer-accountability as a norm, Grenny says in Crucial Accountability. As the boss or manager, the way you handle a chronic poor performer will let your team know whether your highest value is keeping the peace or pursuing excellence.

6. Make Recognition Part of the Culture

Compliments are one of the best ways to guide behavior, and yet most managers are total praise misers, rationing it out as if there was a significant cost attached and then only for outstanding work. But according to Marcus Buckingham, author of The One Thing You Need to Know, when polled, employees reveal that their No. 1 complaint is that they aren’t recognized for their notable performances. While a leader may shy away from sharing praise for efforts that are simply a part of an employee’s job description, people crave that sense of recognition and appreciation, he says. He recommends giving each team member time during your Friday “bookend meeting” to share not only their own experiences, but a shout-out to someone who helped them during the previous days. When they know this is coming each week, they will be more inclined to stay connected and keep track of who they worked with and how they were able to help each other.


7. The Risks of Incentives

According to studies, the primary cause of most culture-change debacles is when companies attempt to influence behaviors by using rewards as their first motivational strategy. “Influence masters first ensure that vital behaviors are connected to intrinsic satisfaction. Next they line up social support and double-check that both of these areas are in place before they finally choose extrinsic rewards to motivate behavior,” says Patterson. He warns that if you don’t follow this careful order, you’re likely to be disappointed.

8. From the Front

Culture “isn’t owned by any one person or role, but it does start with leadership. Without clarity of direction, affirmation of what is acceptable and what is not, a culture can mutate into something undesirable,” says Spencer Williams, CEO and owner of West Paw, which The Bozeman Daily Chronicle recently awarded “Best Company Culture” among local businesses. As the company leader, you have to make sure that what is codified in mission statements is also enacted in the “micromoments” of daily organizational life. “These consist of small gestures rather than bold declarations of feeling,” write management professors Sigal Barsade of Wharton and Olivia O’Neill of George Mason University in a column in Knowledge@Wharton. “For example, little acts of kindness and support can add up to an emotional culture characterized by caring and compassion.” It also helps if you’re prepared to get dirty with your workers. “A leader really can’t lead from the office,” says Lisa Kirschner of Sit, Stay, ‘N Play in Stroudsburg, PA. “They need to be in the trenches with the team, feeling what they feel, doing what they do, and understanding first hand what they go through.” Andy Wiltz of Woof’s Play & Stay in Merriam, KS, agrees: “You must live the culture. You can’t implement a culture if you don’t follow it yourself.”

9. Find the Opinion Leaders

The people who make up our social networks are the key sources of persuasion in our lives. But some of those people are far more powerful than others. When it comes to adopting new ideas or behaviors, for example, it is estimated that 85 percent of the population will not adopt a practice until they see these so-called opinion leaders or early adopters do it. These people represent only about 13.5 percent of the population. They are smarter than average and tend to be open to new ideas, but they are different from innovators in one critical way as they are socially connected and respected. When doing anything with your culture — trying to change it or implement a new one — you have to identify and win these people over to your cause. “Spend a disproportionate time with them, listen to their concerns, build trust with them, be open to their ideas, rely on them to share your ideas, and you’ll gain a source of influence unlike any other,” says Patterson in Influencer. In some ways, it’s like being in high school, which is literally the case for GiggyBites Bakery & MarketPlace in Chadds Ford, PA. “We have a staff of mostly high school students, and I try to have the older kids set the example for the next group. This helps with shared ownership of our culture,” Stephanie Rossino says.


10. App It

Online programs can make the implementation of reward programs much easier than in previous times. An example is Bonusly, a program that allows workers to recognize each other’s hard work and reward it. Jamee Yocum of BARK in Jacksonville, FL, recommends another app, Givingly, for when an employee “goes above and beyond. It allows me to send a personalized e-card with the option of adding a gift card as well. I usually give anywhere between $10 to $20. I also send them one on their birthday, too, along with having the day off.” Note, that research highlights the importance of keeping incentives small, spontaneous and symbolic as overly large rewards can distort and corrupt behavior.

11. Punishment

Punishment sends a message as does its absence. “For routine infractions, the point isn’t that people need to be threatened in order to perform. It’s that if you aren’t willing to go to the mat when people violate the core values, it loses its moral force in the organization. On the other hand, you send a powerful message about your values when you do hold employees accountable,” says Patterson, although he urges that you first take a shot across the bow to let people know what’s coming before you drop the hammer.” When it comes to people being dismissed, there should never be an element of surprise. Rhonda Olson of Rhonda’s Aviary in Milton, FL, says she’s seen the downside of being too soft. “I have been a little too empathetic and kind to the point of being taken advantage of. There needs to be a certain level of policy and rules that apply to all to help avoid that.”

12. Nudge, Nudge

Workplace studies have shown how organizational structure and design features can have a profound impact on how people think and behave. When the physical world supports your cultural aspirations and limits human choice, you don’t merely make good behavior desirable, you make it probable. For Rebecca Martino of Stately Pet Supply in Clarks Summit, PA, managing the environment was more about easing up on the top-down control. “I was unsure about how well it would work at first, but my staff make their own schedules. This has facilitated a very laid-back and ‘we’re just a group of buddies that happen to work at the same place’ atmosphere. The atmosphere in the store is light with tons of laughs, and customers love it.”

13. Hiring: Beware Stagnation

Hire for culture not skills is a business adage reflected in the shorthand definition: A Good Hire = Skill + Will + Cultural Fit. But what many managers look for and are acting on is more of “an intuitive sense of, ‘Would I get along with this person?’ and that often isn’t very reliable,” Kirsta Anderson, head of culture transformation for Korn Ferry told the Wall Street Journal in a recent story about corporate cultural trends. Hiring managers need to go deeper and figure out whether applicants are in sync with more fundamental elements of their culture, Anderson said: “Are they excited about how the company innovates, serves customers or makes a social impact? Will they mesh with the way individuals and teams at the company work, by collaborating or competing? And will they naturally make decisions the way the employer wants — individually or as a group, embracing or avoiding risk?”
Keep in mind that a good cultural fit is not someone who looks and talks like you and has had similar experiences, she says.

What it is:

  • Shared enthusiasm about a company’s mission or purpose
  • A common approach to working, together or individually
  • A mutual understanding of how to make decisions and assess risk

What it’s not:

  • A common educational, cultural or career background
  • A sense of comfort and familiarity with co-workers
  • Shared enjoyment of such perks as pingpong and craft beer

14. Treat People Like Adults

Create policies for the many. Don’t create policies for the few. That allows you to bring out the best in people, not micromanage their every move or bind them in red tape. Yes, some people will try to take advantage but treat everybody like an adult. Make sure they understand what their responsibilities are and trust them to do the right thing — most people want that. Similarly, look to share the big-picture responsibilities and implement ideas staff come up with. This affirms each person’s value to the company. “Listening to their ideas and implementing them — even if it’s not perfect or the way I would do them, it’s important to honor them in that way sometimes,” says Kendra Conze of Health Mutt in Tampa, FL.

Johnna Devereaux of Fetch RI in Richmond, RI, agrees. “I find it extremely valuable to ask my employees what their thoughts are on ideas that I have. It makes them feel like they are part of something bigger and that they matter. When people feel valued, the entire environment changes for the better.”

15. Institute a “No Asshole Rule”

In “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,” Bob Sutton, a professor of at Stanford Business School, makes a well-reasoned argument that assholes — who he defines as self-centered, abusive individuals — are generally bad for the people who work with them, and for the organizations that harbor them, even if they attain success in their roles. Paige Elder of Buzz n’ B’s Pet Shop in Erie, PA, couldn’t agree more. “One employee giving out lazy, negative vibes will absolutely pull everyone else down — even the best employees. It’s so hard, but so important, to keep the negative out and the positive in. I got rid of someone in our aquatics department who was becoming lazy. Everyone was stagnant, unmotivated and unhappy — even employees in other departments —because of having to deal with him. He’s gone, and I now have two new employees who are happy and goofy. It’s brought life (and productivity!) back to the department.”

16. Make It a Great Place to Work But …

Happy hours, team lunches, birthday shout-outs and company outings can help build a positive environment, and people generally do their jobs better when they know, trust and like their co-workers. Keep in mind, however, that culture is not about providing a company keg or other frills like pingpong tables. It’s hiring people who have meaningful shared values, rather, and who ultimately actually want to have beers together. Celebrated business author Tom Peters says “Give a lot, expect a lot, and if you don’t get it, prune.” That may sound glib, but each part of this advice — the setting of standards, the communicating of them and the systematic support to ensure they can be carried out — requires conscious effort on the part of the business leader, you. People want to work for a company that has high standards, that they can be proud of and that is going to bring out the best in them. It’s the serious stuff, not the frivolous, that matter.

17. Keep Talking

On average, it takes 10 to 20 exposures to an idea before it will be accepted. To shift the shared norms, beliefs and implicit understandings within an organization, the desired change might be framed in terms or a response to real and present business challenges and opportunities as well as aspirations and trends. Because of culture’s somewhat ambiguous and hidden nature, referring to tangible problems, such as market pressures or the challenges of growth, helps people better understand and connect to the need for change.

18. Create a Culture of Trust

To a lot of bosses, culture means employees who will keep working hard even when no one is watching. Trust is thus central. The research of neuroeconomist Paul Zak has identified the brain chemical oxytocin — shown to facilitate collaboration and teamwork — as a key player in this regard: the higher the levels, the more energetic and collaborative the workers. In Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies, he details a framework based for creating a culture of trust and building a happier, more loyal and more productive workforce. The framework includes eight key management behaviors that stimulate oxytocin production and generate trust: 1) Recognize excellence, 2) Induce “challenge stress;” 3) Give people discretion in how they do their work, 4) Enable job crafting, 5) Share information broadly, 6) Intentionally build relationships, 7) Facilitate whole-person growth, and 8) Show vulnerability. Ultimately, Zak concludes, managers can cultivate trust by setting a clear direction, giving people what they need to see it through, and then getting out of their way. Stephanie Steelman of Wings Wags and Whiskers in Amarillo, TX, says she’s found this is “the only way way to establish a culture that works in a business. It’s like being a Boy Scout or Girl Scout. Help others and do the right thing when no one is watching.”


19. Model It

“The greatest influence in the world is the influence of norms,” says social scientist Grenny. “When people see visual models of desirable behavior, and when that behavior becomes widespread, it also becomes self-sustaining.” However, few people understand that norms change one person at a time. “When we coach executives to inspire others, we tell them to find that one positive example — a person, a team, a unit that went the extra mile to help a customer, to help out a fellow employee, meet a particularly high standard — and make it evident these are your expectations and let it sink into the collective conscience of the entire organization,” he says.

20. Use Stories to Get Your Message Over

When trying to cajole workers to accept cultural change or new behaviors, it is easy to come off sounding like a nag, a manipulator or just an overly demanding business owner. As opposed to lectures or directives, stories are effective because they transport people out of the role of resistor/critic and into the role of participant in an emotionally charged drama. Stories help people view the world in new ways while giving them hope. They can show the consequences of say shoddy work, such as the wrong nutritional advice, and understand the perspective of customers who maybe felt they weren’t listened to. In addition to having characters who are identifiable, “make sure that the narrative you’re implying contains a clear link between the current behaviors and existing or possibly future negative results, says Patterson. When you’re promoting change to the way people work, your stories need to deal with both will it be worth it and can I do it.

21. When All Think Alike, Then No One Is Thinking

There is second danger from hiring for cohesion: Too much emphasis on cultural fit can stifle diversity and cause managers to overlook promising candidates with unique perspectives, an important attribute in our fast-changing world. “Where everyone thinks in similar ways and sticks to the dominant norms, businesses are doomed to stagnate,” says Wharton organizational professor Adam Grant, writing in a 2019 column.

22. Onboarding

Get a robust onboarding plan in place and you’ll allow new hires to navigate your company culture with confidence and quickly get up to speed. “Clearly defining organizational goals and explaining the why behind them is essential during the onboarding process, when new employees are learning the ropes and grappling with what is expected of them. It also sets the scene for personal accountability,” former Intel CEO Bob Swann told the New York Times in a story about his efforts to change that company’s culture.

A successful onboarding program:

Helps new hires understand how work is done in a company and addresses the details of the company’s daily operations

Outlines the organizational structure, and explains where everyone fits in the framework

Re-enforces the company brand, and its values, mission, and vision

Acclimates new employees to their surroundings and environment, which helps them feel connected to others

At the same time, be prepared to be patient, says Julie Johannes of Powder Hounds Pet Supply in Bigfork, MT. “Patience is key. Not everyone can handle an open and flexible environment. The same is true for those that need more structure. Read the personalities of team members, notice who might be struggling and help them through whatever culture you are establishing.”



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