The Bigger You Get, the More Attention Your Culture Needs
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In the age of the internet, cultural breakdowns don’t stay secret for long; companies like Nasty Gal and American Apparel can attest to that. Despite the obvious lessons to be drawn from their experience, how many startups actually paid attention? Not many.
Take the once-proud online health insurance brokerage Zenefits, for example. Once valued at $4.5 billion, Zenefits took the growth model to the extreme, according to Quartz. Sales teams worked long hours and drank at the office, making the startup feel more like a college fraternity than the Silicon Valley unicorn it was.
Eventually, Zenefits' bad culture caught up with it. After high-level executives resigned, alcohol was banned and a new CEO stepped in, the company started to make changes. Today, the company still exists, and can likely be attributed to its having learned its lesson from the experience.
As the leader of a startup that grew to a workforce of 120, I know, myself, what it’s like to struggle with culture. It’s easy to have personal relationships with 20 people; it’s impossible to do the same with 100 more. Rather than struggle futilely to be best friends with everyone, I delegated cultural leadership to six people across our business units, ensuring that everyone in the organization could look to someone nearby for cultural grounding.
I take culture seriously because businesses produce better products when the people who work for them feel like their work matters. If the teams like working together, the company makes more money and has a better shot at long-term success.
How to instill a great company culture
What people do doesn’t matter nearly as much as why they do it. If they believe that they matter, they are willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. That’s a cultural thing. A group of uninspired people in a bad culture doesn’t produce good results. Instead, they resent their jobs and drag down the people around them.
According to the Hays U.S. What People Want survey, 47 percent of people looking for a new job blame company culture for their desire to move. The survey also found that 71 percent would take a pay cut for their ideal job, which would naturally have the culture they desire.
In a great culture, people are excited to work with their peers, even if the work is grueling. The community makes the grind worthwhile. So, if that's the goal you want for your own company, follow these five steps to create the kind of culture that drives productivity and scale:
1. Articulate and reinforce core values.
The hardest thing about scaling can be a lack of personal relationships. When we had 20 people, our whole staff would hang out at the end of each quarter. As we got larger, those relationships no longer drove that kind of closeness. That's nothing to be ashamed about: 120 people simply aren't going to know one other all that well.
So, avoid letting a "corporate" feeling take over at your company; stick to company values. People don’t have to be best friends, but if they feel inspired by (and loyal to) a set of values, every relationship can operate on common ground.
Our culture is more laid back, and of course that doesn't work for everyone. According to the previously cited Quartz article, Netflix offers incredible benefits and pay, yet the company demands a lot from its workers and rides them hard. Nothing is wrong with either approach: As long as the employees understand what’s expected of them, they can keep things running smoothly.
2. Foster individual connections.
Money (even the sweet VC kind of money) can’t buy culture. Great culture takes effort, and building it is going to be too much for one person.
So, assign informal “cultural ambassadors” to share the burden. That way, your company will have a few people who can put a face to the company values and have real relationships with the people who are supposed to uphold them. Overall, the importance of a strong culture can’t be overstated: A Columbia Business School and Duke University survey discovered that more than 50 percent of executives polled believed culture affects productivity, profitability, creativity and growth rates.
At our company, we champion values of getting stuff (substitute word for the profane one we use) done, learning quickly and staying cool. I could write at length about each, but the important thing is that every cultural ambassador understands them the same way I do. The other day, when an employee came into my office to vent about life, I hung back from lunch to talk with him about his struggles. That’s part of our culture: giving people the time they deserve.
3. Define benefits behind tchotchkes.
A tchotchke is a trinket, more for decoration than function. Office ping-pong tables fall into this category: They’re cool, but they’re not cultural necessities in and of themselves. If employees know they can play a game to let off steam when they’re feeling competitive or grouchy, that table reflects a culture that aims to fulfill employee needs beyond a "fun" distraction.
Things like catered lunches and open bars are perks, not culture. Culture is more about what’s underneath the perks. How does the company handle things when life gets hard?
When we have company-wide meetings, we tend to include an agenda item we know everyone cares about -- that's outside work. Last meeting we had, a person from our 401(k) management partner came by to talk about debt management and savings. The 401(k) is the perk, but the commitment to improving the financial literacy of our employees is the culture behind it.
4. Prop up cultural champions.
When people who embody the company culture stand out, give them a platform. Recognize their talents for inspiration outside regular productivity, and promote them to cultural ambassador status if they deserve it.
These people don’t have to be managers or leaders (although we do expect our leaders to embody our culture). Cultural champions can come from anywhere. When I see people with the right attitude, I always pull them aside to express my appreciation of their role in cultural leadership.
So, shine a light on these cultural champions to show others how it’s done and how the company values its best workers. Acknowledge them in meetings in front of their peers. Nuna, a health-tech startup, assuaged employee frustration with meetings by redesigning the purposes of different meetings, some of which focused on recognition. Employees in good cultures like to know they make a difference.
5. Follow up on cultural strategies.
Ask employees how they feel about the culture at your company -- Officevibe found that companies enjoy 15 percent less turnover if they welcome regular employee feedback. We sent out a survey that asked employees to rate whether they would recommend the company to their friends and what would make it better.
Open-ended responses help us discern what works and what doesn’t. One memorable response said, “I’m sick of bagels. No more bagels on Friday: Let’s get something else.” How else would we learn something like that?
Keep surveys anonymous to encourage employee honesty. If employees worry that they could be punished for their opinions, they might not share what the company wants to know.
No matter how successful a company becomes, a bad culture can kill it from the inside if leaders don’t manage it carefully. Follow these tips to create a sustainable, effective culture that encourages office productivity and satisfaction.