While this "personality" is built partially on the relationships and traditions you establish, a third key element that defines a company's culture is values.
Just as an individual has personal values that help guide his or her decisions, companies too operate under a set of values.
Take the culture quiz
Take a moment to ask yourself: What five words would you use to describe your company? What behaviors get rewarded here? Do we involve employees in decision-making?
These are the types of questions Anie Chinarian challenges shop owners to not only ask themselves, but to also allow their employees to answer anonymously.
Chinarian, the senior vice president of human resources for the Caliber Collision Centers chain of shops, said such a "quick culture quiz" will help shop owners define the type of culture they want for their company - and find out how close they are to having it.
"I think you're gong to find some interesting things," Chinarian said in encouraging shop owners to allow their employees to fill out a similar quiz. "Some of it will be that the messages you've tried to convey got through: They do know who you are as a company and what you want. But other aspects of it will make you wonder why they're not clear on something."
Other questions on such a quiz can include: What type of person gets promoted? Who fits in and who doesn't (not specific names but types of people). Do we encourage innovation? Do we reward employees for coming up with new ideas? Do we strive for continuous improvement? Do we pay attention to our employees' well-being? Do we pay attention to task performance and profit?
"As the business leader, you have to figure out your core values," Anie Chinarian, senior vice president of human resources for the 1,700-employee Caliber Collision Centers chain of shops, said. "You have them. You operate with them right now. But you have to be able to articulate them to your staff so that when they're making decisions and you're not there, you have a pretty high level of confidence that if you were there, you'd be making the same decision they're making."
Camille Eber at Roth & Miller CARSTAR Autobody in Portland, Ore., lays out her company's four core values - she calls them the "unchangeables" - in a 1-page document all employee receive. It explains each of the four values - integrity, excellence, accommodation and profitability - and states that they are to be the basis for every decision employees make at the shop. The document gives some examples of how each of the four values could impact those decisions, and some questions employees can ask themselves related to those values when making decisions.
Similarly, Chinarian said Caliber Collision Centers uses the acronym REPAIRS to help communicate and reinforce its values to employees. Each letter in the word stands for one of the company's values: respect, empathy, professionalism, accountability, integrity, resourcefulness and satisfaction.
"We're going to be respectful to others even when we disagree," Chinarian said company employees are told. "Even when we're wrong, or even when we're feeling like we're in the right and the other person doesn't have a clue what they're doing or saying, we're going to be respectful. We're going to be empathetic, and put ourselves in that person's shoes and try to understand their point of view so that maybe we can get closer to a solution that works for both of us. We're going to always be professional, always operate with the highest level of integrity. We're going to be accountable for our actions. If we say we're going to do something, we're going to, we're going to figure out how to make that happen."
The company similarly spells out for employees what they mean by resourcefulness and dedication to customer satisfaction.
"Those are our fundamental values," Chinarian said. "Those are the values we operate by. REPAIRS is a way to help our employees understand it, to get it in their heads. And it's something we always keep talking about."
But certainly, talking about them is not enough. The company's leaders have to model those values in everything they say and do. They need to sometimes check decisions they've made against those values to determine if they are consistent.
"When you're making a difficult decision - and you can make plenty of those on a daily basis - kind of check it against your core values," Chinarian said. "Ask: Is this consistent with what I'm saying I want our company to be? Is this decision in line with what I say about being respectful, and full of integrity. Test yourself."
Hiring decisions, for example, have to be based on a core set of values that you're looking for in an employee. Yes, in the ideal, a new employee will be self-motivated, able to work within a team, and able to produce a lot of high-quality work. But, Chinarian cautions, you may not be able to find someone with all of those qualities. So you have to determine which among those or other qualities are what you value most and hire accordingly, with the goal of helping the employee develop the other things.
Values similarly drive the decision to fire someone. You need to determine what it is that you won't tolerate, what it is that so violates the fundamental values of the company that it will result in termination. Communicating that to employees will help them understand the company's values and helps develop the culture you want.
Challenge and reward the best
Chinarian said that although your company's culture is based on relationships, traditions and values, other things can influence it. Whether employees feel there is opportunity for (and encouragement of) their own growth and development can have a big impact on how they feel about the company.
"You not only need your folks, but they need to know they are needed," Chinarian said.
While larger or multi-location businesses have some obvious ways to offer employees a "career path," even small shops can enable employees to grow and develop.
"You can enrich that job, give them more responsibility," Chinarian said. "You can include them in other projects and decision-making. The side benefit is that it allows you to delegate something that you can't spend your time on."
She said most small business owners have experience having an employee who seems to set the whole tone for the shop - positive or negative. It's important to identify these "informal leaders," she said.
"If you don't know who they are or they're not working with you, what are they doing? They're working their own agenda," she said. "They're making sure that whatever is important to them is whatever is being talked about out there. I always encourage our managers to find the informal leaders, bring them in your circle, make them part of the problem-solving team, make your issues their issues."
Similarly, she said, developing a good culture involves identifying your shop's top performers and making sure they are rewarded, not just given the toughest work because you know you can count on them.
"Re-recruit them everyday," Chinarian said of these top performers. "You want to figure out every day how to make them feel good about the fact that they're with you and not down the street. A lot of times you ignore those people because they do such a good job and we almost take them for granted."
Us vs. them
Chinarian cites a quote from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, about what is perhaps the ultimate test of whether a company has done a good job developing a positive culture. Reich said he uses the "pronoun test" when he visits workplaces and asks employees a few questions about the company.
"If the answers I get back describe the company in terms like 'they' and 'them,' then I know it is one kind of company," Reich said. "If the answers are put in terms like 'we' or 'us,' I know it is a different kind of company."
John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.