Nurturing a Liquid Paper kind of company culture

Yes, it really was a harried typist who invented Liquid Paper as a quicker and neater way of correcting typing errors. Her name was Harriet Nesmith Graham, and she led the secretarial pool at Texas Bank and Trust. And because reality is often more fascinating than fiction, she was the mother of future Monkee Michael Nesmith.

The point is, this billion-dollar idea came from someone without an advanced degree or product development expertise. She was just a single working mom who saw a better way. After using and sharing her homemade corrective fluid for five years at the bank, she started her own company, where she incorporated decentralized decision-making at an office campus that included an employee library and childcare center. By the time she sold the business in 1979 for $47.5 million, Liquid Paper employed 200 and was producing 25 million bottles of corrective fluid a year.

If you’re not doing so already, it’s important to learn how to nurture a culture that encourages that kind of creativity and initiative. Here’s how to get a leg up on your culturally clueless competitors.

Maintain an atmosphere of respect and encouragement. Fear is no enticement to action. Encourage your management to be open and receptive to questions, suggestions and critiques of the status quo. “Because we’ve always done it that way” is no response. Neither is, “You’ve only been here six months. What do you know?” If you make it the job of your employees to keep their heads down and just get their assigned work done, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

Reward good ideas. Nothing encourages initiative better than a bonus, but other rewards work, as well. A Starbucks gift card, a write-up in the company newsletter or a brief mention at the annual meeting show that you recognize and value the dedication of your people.

Take action. A suggestion box full of cobwebs quickly creates a cynical workforce. Many companies pay lip service to welcoming the input and feedback of all as a standard part of interviews and orientations. Follow up your vocal encouragement with action, or employees will see that their suggestions never gain traction. You’ll look like a pleasant enough leader trying to come across in the best possible light. They may like you well enough, but they’re just going to do their jobs and go home at the end of the workday.

Be authentic. Culture is really just a trendier word for the organization’s personality — and that comes directly or indirectly from you. If you operate a small company, your workers take inspiration — for better or worse — from the signals you send. The energy, optimism, patience, openness, fairness and support for which your company is known mirror your own personality traits. If you employ hundreds or even thousands, you’ve put together a leadership team that reflects those personality quirks. So don’t expect a better company culture than the values you’ve embedded.

But imagine how things would have been different if Betty Nesmith Graham had been told to just keep typing.