How to Avoid a Cookie-Cutter Company Culture

When it comes to building a strong company culture, what works for one business, won't neccessarily work for others.

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By Ben Williams


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The importance of your startup's culture is undeniable: A Columbia University study shows job turnover at organizations with rich cultures is much lower than those with poor cultures. But installing the right culture is the big challenge -- and it's certainly not a plug-and-play affair.

When it comes to building a company culture, it's awfully tempting for entrepreneurs to look at businesses such as Google and Zappos for inspiration -- two brands universally lauded for their big, bright workspaces and happy employees.

What tends to happen, though, is leaders only remember the superficial aspects of these cultures; not their holistic systems and values. They read about free lunches, beer kegs, Ping-Pong tables and unlimited vacation time, but they have no idea why these specific things make sense for those companies.

Related: How Does Company Culture Actually Lead to Success?

Cultures shouldn't just be copied.

Every company has unique circumstances surrounding it -- from the personalities of its founders to the structure of its customer cycle. Your culture should be built in harmony with these factors, and it should also coincide with your company's core values. In other words, your culture should derive from the unique makeup of your company, not the other way around.

Ultimately, your culture and values should boost your employees' productivity and happiness. But be careful when offering trendy rewards such as unlimited vacation time and free alcohol. The effectiveness of these perks depends heavily on whether your employees are already happy, engaged and trustworthy.

If your staff isn't satisfied with their jobs and your company as a whole, "unlimited vacation" can turn into "unlimited ditch-days" or "no vacation for anyone, ever" if it's offered in the wrong context.

Here are three things to keep in mind when creating your own unique culture:

1. Integrity is key.

You can't just force a culture into your company by buying toys and saying your office is a fun, flexible place to work. As the leader, your actions will determine your startup's true culture. If you advocate open communication but only speak to employees one-on-one, your communication isn't open. It's that simple.

An MIT study showed companies perform stronger when employees view their leaders as trustworthy and ethical, so make sure you show integrity and lead by example when promoting your culture.

2. Don't build in a vacuum.

Your culture means nothing if your employees aren't on board with the policies and amenities you've installed.

An acquaintance of mine recently hired a sushi chef to come into his office once a week and provide his staff with a free lunch without realizing most of his employees don't like sushi. Major fail.

Related: How to Lead a Caring Company Culture

Bounce ideas off of your staff before you install them, and encourage your employees to offer their own suggestions on how to create a great company culture. According to Gallup, 70 percent of American workers are disengaged at their jobs; involving yours in this process will put your startup on the right side of that stat.

3. Think about scalability.

It's not difficult to build a culture in a company of 10 people. You're interacting directly with every employee, and it's easy to keep everything in line with your company's vision. Once you add more bodies into the mix, things get a bit more difficult.

Avoid cultural growing pains by training your first managers to pick up where you leave off. When my company was small, we (the founders) held monthly one-on-one coffee chats with every employee, and once a handful of them became our first round of managers, we urged them to continue holding these types of meetings with their teams.

Further, establish your standards early and find what works for your company. Make sure they are applicable to every employee and extend them to every new hire. Consistency is key when it comes to scaling a credible culture.

Many leaders use the concept of an "awesome culture" or a "built culture" as a crutch or a punch line. Cultures are built, but their success depends on employee buy-in and genuine leadership by example. Free granola bars and kegs of craft beer are rewards that reinforce your startup's culture and identity -- not things that define it.

Related: How Leaders Should Look at Culture

Ben Williams

COO of Reelio

Ben Williams is an entrepreneur and technologist who specializes in tech, energy, and aerospace. He's currently COO of Reelio, a media tech startup based in New York City.

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