People and Culture Matter: 3 Things You Can Do Now to Improve Your Business Results

Posted by John Olsen on 2/07/2019 10:55:52 AM

I am often asked “What should I do around people and culture that will help grow my business?”. It’s a great question because for many businesses their investment in people through wages, etc represents one of their largest expenses. Generating an above average return from that investment makes sense.

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While there are any number of articles and ideas on concepts that will promise to help you unlock the potential of your organization not all are fit for purpose for every organisation or situation.

So, what to do? Pick an idea from a management book and hope it works? Or are there practices, backed by research, that if you commit to will accrue benefits, like compound interest, to maximize the return on your people investment? If there are practices to commit to, what are the simplest ways to implement them?

For me your focus should always be on the most basic inputs to a problem. In the area of people that means focusing on, at least, the following three areas:

#1 Improve hiring decisions - by keeping your interviewers separate and independent

Everyone has a story about the impact of a great hire. Unfortunately, everyone also has a story about a bad hire. We know we need to make more great hires than bad hires, especially in a tight labour market, but struggle on how to do that.

If you were going to do one thing my suggestion would be keep your interviewers separate and independent when making their hire/no hire decision.

Why? Studies have shown that exposure to the opinions of others increases the likelihood you will arrive at a similar opinion. In a hiring process this means you may only be getting the opinion of the 1 or 2 people that have influenced everyone else. There is an even greater risk when a founder, CEO, or someone else of seniority is participating in the interview process.

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What does this mean in practice?

  • Give your interviewers separate areas of focus (and have them use the STAR method while you are at it) based on what you need in the role such as technical skills, culture, etc.
  • Keep your interviewers blind to the impressions of others during the interview process and while they arrive at a hire/no hire decision.
  • Debrief candidates in person and have interviewers present their hire/no hire recommendation AND reasons for their decisions so the interview team can debate the details of the candidate and how they fit or don’t fit the needs of the role.
  • Track your hiring decisions – measuring your success rates will yield insights that will help you streamline and make improvements to your process over time.

This may sound like a lot of work but for many doing the above simply replaces or modifies steps that they already take. If you are interested in other changes you can make in your hiring process this article and this one are good places to start.

Improve trust - by teeing up tough conversations.

Trust, for many people, means the safety to voice their opinions and ideas. Teams with high levels of trust tend to be the ones that generate ideas for new products, new ways to reduce costs, or new ways to help customers.

Trust is built over time by how you deal with failure, ask for input, celebrate success, and admit mistakes among other things. If there was an activity you could use to build trust and improve your business would you do it?

Or maybe the better question is would anyone say no?

I like the classic Start/Stop/Continue exercise with a team to accomplish this. There are numerous resources online that can guide you on the mechanics but essentially it is a discussion and brainstorm with a team about the processes and/or things your business should start, stop, or continue doing to improve its results.

When it comes to trust, Start/Stop/Continue discussions can be a critical tool for a leader to lead by example and have candid conversations about tough subjects. You get to build trust by the topics you are willing to discuss, celebrate successes you may not have known about, how you react to ideas during the conversation, and how you drive ideas forward after the meeting. All your actions should be focused on making sure people know their input matters. This doesn’t mean all ideas should be accepted. That isn’t practical. What is practical is that people feel there was a robust discussion and they understand why a decision was made especially if their idea isn’t accepted.

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I believe that seeding a few questions that almost beg for a hard conversation are worthwhile.

Some ideas for questions to do this are:

Start: If we were building this business again what would you have done differently? Should we start any of those ideas now?

Stop: What processes do we have that you think are sacred? Should we stop any of them?

This does not mean that the past decisions were wrong, but things change and it is just as important to make difficult decisions about what to stop as it is what to start.

Continue: I often find you never have problems getting a list of items in this section. The key is figuring out which ones should continue because they add real value. If you find your continue list is too long or you just want to inspect it ask the team to bucket the list in to 2 categories – customer only and internal only. You can then inspect your internal only list to make sure they are really adding value that benefits your customers. There will be some processes that fall between both categories – force those processes to be categorized.

During the conversation suggestions like “We need a new (or continue a) process to help communication between department x and y.” should raise a red flag. Challenge yourself and the team to discuss whether the solution really is more, or continued, reports or if there is something else at play that requires a more difficult conversation.

Finally, don’t expect your first Start/Stop/Continue meeting to be perfect. Having candid and open conversations takes time and practice. The key is to follow through on actions, measure and communicate progress, and hold yourself accountable to continue bringing your team together.

If you are interested in a deeper article on this topic and what it can mean for you organization read here.

Improve yourself – by using feedback from your team.

Just as you hire or promote people as your business changes, you also need to adapt and grow. While management books, mentors, and coaches all play a role in helping you there are places closer to home to begin with on your journey to improve yourself.

My suggestion – simply ask your team for feedback. You can do this formally in a version of a Start/Stop/Continue exercise on yourself or by surveying your team anonymously. If that feels like too much work or if that is to scary, then just ask a few people you trust. The key is to just start asking. Whichever way you go about it, you’ll be amazed (and maybe sometimes shocked) at what you learn but the great thing is asking will get easier with practice.

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The beauty of asking for feedback is that it also:

  • Builds trust with those people you ask. To do this make sure you’re closing the loop on what feedback you are taking on and why. If you don’t close the loop, people will believe you ignored them - an outcome worse than never asking for feedback to begin with.

  • Gives you permission to coach your own people. I have often found that leaders want to coach their people, but don’t know how to start for fear of insulting them or making the person angry. By having led by example you will be surprised at how open individuals will be when you want to help them through feedback.

A word of caution. The first time you ask for feedback, especially if it’s a radical departure from how you operated before, will not be easy nor are you likely to get the most direct and actionable suggestions. The quality of the feedback you receive will improve over time if you continue to seek it out and show people you take their input seriously.


None of the three suggestions above are easy or overnight fixes and you will make mistakes. What they are, though, are fundamental practices that over time will pay dividends. The key is to treat these three areas like you would any other critical part of your business, e.g. sales, and dedicate time, focus, and effort to getting better.


This blog is written by John Olsen, a business coach at The Icehouse. If you'd like to learn more about how John can help you empower your people and build a better business culture, contact us to organise a free, no obligation chat.

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Topics: Business Coaching, Business Strategy & Planning, HR & Employment