Company Culture Comes From Good Leadership
Editor’s Note: In the new podcast Masters of Scale, LinkedIn co-founder and Greylock partner Reid Hoffman explores his philosophy on how to scale a business -- and at Entrepreneur.com, entrepreneurs are responding with their own ideas and experiences on our hub. This week, we’re discussing Hoffman’s theory: There are many good company cultures and many bad company cultures, but a winning company culture only emerges when every employee feels they personally own the culture. Listen to this week's episode here.
We often define organizational culture as “The way we get things done.” However, Edgar Schein, one of the leading experts in organizational culture and an MIT professor, warns not to look at culture superficially. He says that “Culture operates at many levels and certainly how we do things around here is the surface level.” Schein explains that he thinks of culture like a lily pond where one can easily see surface items like flowers and leaves. However, he says that it is the root system that is nurturing the pond. The pond is really dependent on what is feeding it, its history and who planted it.
We would argue that “how we get things done” is a reflection of the company’s current culture, but also sustains it through these actions. The way we get things done is the daily nourishment and thereby creates the history. We do agree with Schein that the other factor -- the gardener -- is the key driving force. Culture comes down to leadership.
When Shawn Boyer started Snagajob in 1999, he wasn’t concentrating on the culture he wanted to create. He had an idea for a search engine website that would specialize in hourly jobs, and his efforts were focused on building, launching and growing its presence. This isn’t to say that Boyer spent no time thinking about the kind of company he wanted, and that would become the leading job search engine for hourly jobs. Coming from the legal field, he knew he wanted something different than the silo intensive, solitary culture that often accompanies the practice of corporate law. He said that the firms where he worked were filled with great people who would get it done and be very accountable to the client, but it wasn’t a collaborative environment. Few people felt a real passion for what they were doing. For his company, Boyer wanted “a company where people really wanted to be and that was fun.”
For several months, Boyer worked alone in the basement of his Washington, D.C. home, but he quickly realized that this was not the right environment for his startup. In mid-2000, he moved into a small (less than 1,200-square-foot) office in Norge, Va. outside of Williamsburg and hired his first employee. The medical office park still didn’t seem like the birthplace of a technology company, but the rent was priced right. By the end of the summer of 2000, Snagajob had four employees.
Boyer looked for employees who could share his passion for the business. As he said, “I needed to find people who wanted to do great things, really bust it and work closely with their teammates.” They did several things to create a team environment and grow closer as a unit: They read a book each month and discussed it; these were primarily business books or motivational biographies. They had breakfast together each Friday, rotating who would be responsible for feeding the ever growing crowd. At various times, they would take breaks and play Scattergories or participate in some invigorating calisthenics. Boyer ensured that they were close, celebrating every success and agonizing over any customer disappointments.
There was little formal structure in the first year, except for the mission statement they created which read “We help put people in the right fit positions so that they maximize their potential and live more fulfilling lives.” They didn’t have stated company values. There were no written policies. During those first years, Boyer was not consciously thinking about culture. He was leading. He was focused on building a great business and staving off threats from other better-funded startups and several of the 800-pound gorillas in their market.
In late 2000, a company calling itself Gotajob.com launched. Gotajob.com wanted to support the previously underserved market of hourly wage earners. Gotajob.com was also well funded with more than $20 million in investment. In 2001, Monster.com announced that it was also entering the hourly space. Hotjobs.com and Careerbuilder.com followed.
Boyer explained that his team countered these threats by “customer servicing the heck out of every engagement. We got feedback on every engagement. A lot of it, in the beginning, wasn’t pretty, but there were also great stories of how we really impacted lives.” He kept his team focused on fixing what was wrong and cultivating what they did right. In the end, they prevailed. The big dogs never really gained a foothold in the hourly market and Gotajob.com burned through all its money in two-and-a-half years. When Gotajob.com went out of business, Snagajob bought the URL for $25,000.
Boyer created a great team. Their dedication and passion for their mission sustained them through long hours, hard work and all the uncertainty that comes with a startup. By 2004, growth was accelerating, although the company still had fewer than 15 employees. By 2005, they started to get approached by VCs. They had two salespeople but needed more, and adding salespeople is expensive. They hired an investment banker and went after VC money. They had grown to 25 people, but Boyer worried what would happen to the organization if they grew to 100 or more in a year or less. When they were small, Boyer could influence every action. What would happen to the team if they grew large and did it quickly?
This was also the time when they started working with a local consultant, Greg Moyer. Moyer specialized in helping high growth technology companies build exceptional cultures with strategically aligned HR practices. Moyer worked with Boyer to see that, while not explicitly stated, Snagajob had clear values and a culture that was understood by the employees. Moyer joined Snagajob in 2006 as its chief people officer, becoming a key leader in the organization along with Boyer.
In 2007, the company grew to 100 people. This growth went smoothly because they also had their mission and values of collaboration, accountability and passion (CAP) in place. These values, along with the mission, became the basis of all of their policies and practices. They developed their hiring system, interview questions, performance management system, two-day orientation and rewards programs around these values. CAP was simple, easy to remember and a part of everything the company and employees did.
Although much larger than the original group in 2000, all employees continued to meet together weekly to encourage communication. Snagajob had employees at different levels and from different teams participate in the hiring process to promote inclusion and collaboration. They formalized their system of giving fellow employees a “shout out” for going above and beyond, rewarding people for their passion and accountability. And, until he left the organization in 2013, Boyer sent each employee a personalized birthday card and another on his or her “Snagaversary.” He stayed connected to each person who worked for Snagajob by participating in every new employee orientation and interviewing all final candidates before a hire was made.
The culture built by Boyer and his team was rewarded in 2008 when the company was named a Great Place to Work: Best Small and Medium Workplaces. They continued to receive this designation for the next eight consecutive years. Snagajob has also been named to Washingtonian's "Great Places to Work."
Some things changed as the company matured. When Snagajob hit about 15 people, Boyer said they had to give up the practice of one employee feeding everyone breakfast on Fridays. It got to be too much and too expensive to ask the employees to do this anymore. They had to develop written policies, and of course, they had to move into a much larger space. The employees only meet monthly instead of weekly. At 500 employees, it is too costly to get everyone together. However, the culture built by Boyer through his leadership is still intact.
In 2015, Boyer started another company. Gohappy is an app in the social, group networking space. It is a tool that helps groups schedule and coordinate events with ease, chat during the event and share photos. Boyer’s team has grown to eight. They are all former members of Snagajob. Like Snagajob, they have defined their purpose. It is “To help people live happier lives.” This isn’t surprising given the company’s founder. We believe that Boyer in on his way to creating another company with a great culture. After all, leadership defines culture.