10 Successful Women Leaders Share What They Do to Create A Fantastic Work Culture
"Know yourself and your values, stick with them even if they are difficult," describes one leader. "Trustworthiness is the strongest foundation to build a strong work environment."
As business leaders, one of our main responsibilities is to create a culture where team members look forward to coming to work in the morning. Culture is what motivates people to perform, contribute and stay. Companies such as Zappos, MyFitnessPal and Gusto are renowned for their dedication to healthy work culture. These companies also attribute much of their success to their culture.
In my role as the CEO of PROVEN Skincare, a fast-growing startup that is building its culture, this is a topic I care deeply about. So how does one create a thriving and welcoming work culture? In my column on Authority Magazine called "How I Thrive," I posed this question to several successful female leaders.
Here are 10 highlights from our interviews.
These interviews have been edited for length and clairty.
Piper Gunnarson (Executive Director of On Site Opera)
Positive work culture is extremely important to me, and I am very fortunate that I am now in a leadership position within an organization that values this at all levels—from its board of directors, to full-time staff, to production teams.
I think this is especially important in a deadline-driven field like the performing arts. There is never an option to extend a project deadline. Tickets have already been sold, artists are contracted to work for a specific time period before they fly off to their next job; the venue is only available for a specific calendar window; the show must go on! This business model can easily lead to high stress levels, tense relations and burn-out.
Knowing that the project timeline is non-negotiable, it becomes critical to get people on the team who have positive attitudes and collaborative work styles, so I recommend always starting there. Take time to find people who will be a really positive addition to your team. At my current company, we always start every rehearsal process from a human place. Team meetings start with the question, “What’s new and interesting?” People then have a space to share what is going on in their lives. At On Site we start a rehearsal process by welcoming everyone to the neighborhood, especially our visiting artists, with an info sheet about local resources (restaurants, drug stores, banks, etc.), followed by our code of conduct to create a supportive and respectful work environment.
Encouraging a positive work culture is kind of like cooking comfort food: The secret ingredient is love. You have to have love in the rehearsal room, in the office and in the board room if your opera production is going to feel great to the audience. If you create your production — or whatever project — with any venom in your heart, it will be felt by everyone, and it’s all downhill from there.
We all have flaws and challenges and fears and goals and preferences and dislikes, etc. As long as you pause in those tough moments to acknowledge each other as people, you will find a way through.
Josephine Fan (President of J. Fan Holdings)
If we can’t be happy in what we do, we won’t make others — not our family, not our employees, not our customers — happy either. Happiness doesn’t necessarily mean that it brings us overwhelming joy, or that we don’t feel some of the work is tedious, but that we take pride in our work and accomplishments and seek to share the fruits of those accomplishments with the people in our lives.
I am a big believer in that being kind and fair to others will ultimately bring good opportunities. To me, this means first recognizing and rewarding the effort of others, even if it isn’t necessarily exactly what we had in mind, then having healthy coping skills when it comes to times of conflict, and treating even those who disagree with us with respect. How we react to perceived offenses, whether we choose to be vindictive or seek a compassionate resolution in, will be the ultimate judge of our character. Thus, the following step should be to know ourselves and our values and to stick with those values even if they hurt us in the short-term, since being trustworthy is the strongest foundation you could have upon which to build a strong work environment and gain a loyal customer base.
Lastly, it just as important to know when to give up as it is to persevere. There will be situations where continuing to push is unhealthy, and we might have difficulty recognizing those cases, especially if we’re emotionally invested in them. Basically, try not to cut off our noses just to spite our face.
Paige Arnof-Fenn (Founder and CEO of Mavens and Moguls)
In my experience happy employees become champions and advocates for the business and the brand. When they are happy customers will follow. If companies take good care of their people then the employees take better care of the customers. I believe the organizations that realize that their employees are internal customers have happier and healthier staff and more loyal and profitable businesses. By having less turnover and more repeat customers, the company can focus all their energy on making great products and services which gives them a huge competitive advantage in the market for talent and sales.
Creating a great culture when you are leading and managing a team requires a clear vision, a commitment to hire the best people, some patience to make sure you put your money where your mouth is and a confidence that comes with experience. The optics matter, you better walk the talk because all eyes are on you so your team is not just listening to what you say but also watching what you do and how you respond/react. My biggest challenge when I started my company was that the people you start with are not always the ones who grow with you. The hardest lesson I learned early on is not getting rid of weak people earlier than I did in the first few years of my business. I spent more time managing them than finding new customers. I knew in my gut they were not up to snuff, but out of loyalty, I let them hang around much longer than they should have. It would have been better for everyone to let them go as soon as the signs were there. They became more insecure and threatened as we grew which was not productive for the team. As soon as I let them go the culture got stronger and the bar higher. “A-team" people like to be surrounded by other stars. It is true that you should hire slowly and fire quickly. I did not make that mistake again later after learning it well the first time (though if I had learned it even earlier, I would have been even more appreciative).
Cindy Eggleton (CEO of Brilliant Detroit)
My advice is to listen, care, enjoy the work and be present and direct. In the past, I felt I needed to be really knowledgeable, but I have learned that the greatest thing you can do is listen and you will get all the knowledge you need because people know what’s best for them.
Being present is key to this, as well. Even if I’m being pulled in five million different directions, I know that when I am with another person, I need to honor him, honor the moment and honor what we need to do together.
Underlying all of this is caring. A lot is being written about the power of love, and I think you should always lead with love. Being direct comes from a place of listening, presence and care. It builds trust because people don’t need to guess what’s on your mind. You should be able to be direct without judgment because then you create opportunities for yourself and others to truly grow. Finally, we all forget to celebrate and enjoy ourselves, so love what you do and who you do it with. This sentiment should be your reflection point and your "north star."
Jessie Medina (Founder of FEMX Quarters)
A healthy work culture starts with whom you hire because no matter how good the training and culture is, you can’t teach people to care about your values unless they are already aligned with them. Start by hiring the right people with positive attitudes and initiative. Look for the people who are driven and passionate about what the company is about. Once you have the right hires, it’s all about the team. I believe that the team creates the culture which is why it’s important to put together the right team. Another very important aspect is to lead by example by walking the walk and talking the talk. I can talk all day about teamwork, but if I’m not willing to be collaborative, then I’m just wasting my time. Get to know each person in your team, what’s important to each of them, and present an example for your managers to grow and nurture their teams.
It’s important to understand that work isn’t life. People have dreams and concerns. They have families to support and personal battles to fight. Treat them as people and not just an instrument for your company or just a number. Encourage work-life balance, personal growth and fitness. Try to offer perks for those at your company surpassing expectations.
Charity Hill (Managing Partner at EPIC Entertainment Group)Creating a great work culture is more simplistic than companies tend to make it. Don’t overthink it. People want to be heard, respected and rewarded with opportunities to grow. I think the fundamental difference between those who achieve a great work culture and those who miss the mark is the decision to empower team members to be the rock stars they were hired to become.
Dimple Thakkar (CEO of SYNHERGY MARKETING)
Suits, briefcases and a regular commute to the office are, in my opinion, kind of pointless these days. When we save more money and waste less time, everyone is happy. When everyone is happy, productivity, quality and engagement increases. That is why the future of office space is cyberspace. As a small business owner, keeping operations lean and mean are often the key factors to longevity and sustaining a competitive edge in an oversaturated market. Being lean and small can be an advantage, but people don’t discuss it often enough.
Our remote work program was meticulously created to give workers a work-life balance. We believe in that balance. We also believe in supporting mental health.
Courtney Malengo (Founder of Spark + Buzz Communications)
Not to oversimplify things, but don’t be a jerk. I’m a huge believer and proponent of the servant leadership model that was popularized by Robert Greenleaf. Your job as a leader is to help people realize their potential and create opportunities for them to grow and thrive. It is not about what you can get out of them or simply what they can do for you and your organization. There are countless discussions about whether an organization is separate from its people and vice versa; but an organization can exist without people. An organization is its people. It is short-sighted to think otherwise.
In every role I’ve held, I’ve always strived to be transparent, fair and honest, treating people with respect and helping them get to that next opportunity. Whether that is learning a new skill or eventually moving on to a new gig, I want to help others grow and thrive. It’s important to always make space for personal conversations and understanding what inspires those who work with you. I believe you should love what you do and have fun while you are doing it. If you don’t love it, then let’s figure out something you do love. I’ve had my fair share of amazing bosses and not-so-amazing bosses, so I’ve learned from both examples. I’ve seen first-hand how toxic cultures can permeate an organization and handicap its success. It’s true, it starts at the top. You must model and exhibit the behavior you want to see (and expect) from your team. Alignment between what you say and what you do is crucial for culture and consistency in communication.
Tina M. Baxter (Founder of Baxter Professional Services)
I am going to say “Have fun!” Why should work be a drag? I try to find ways to get my team to work together and have fun.
At my clinical practice, we have a friendly holiday decorating contest. I have gotten the medical assistants to work together to decorate because we want to win! It more than just bragging rights. My win is that we learn to work together in a non-stressful environment. In my days of working in the hospital as a supervisor, I learned to be in tune with what is going on with my staff and my patients. One very hot summer day, the air conditioning went out on the unit. We had industrial fans set up but it was very humid and tempers were short. I went out and bought all of the staff and patients popsicles to cool off. We need to pay attention to what is going on around us and recognize that our staff members are human and if we meet their basic needs, then we build an environment where they and we can all thrive.
Donie Yamamoto (Founder of Vital Pet Life)
There are so many factors involved in creating a fantastic work culture and work-life. Personally, creating and building a supportive community of like-minded women, peers and entrepreneurs changed my life. Starting and running a business from home can feel lonely at times. Of course, my husband and my dog, Tuxedo, are with me, but as I build my Vital Pet Life business, I longed to be part of a community of other entrepreneurial women with who I can collaborate, brainstorm and share my dreams.
Becoming a 2019 Tory Burch Foundation Fellow was a long-time dream of mine, both because I admire Tory Burch’s business acumen as well as her mission of giving back and empowering entrepreneurial women. Her 2019 Fellow’s program brought together 50 dynamic women, all striving to grow and develop their businesses. Knowing that the Fellowship program also awarded grant money to further each Fellow’s business education, motivated me to apply.
I’m a believer in lifelong learning and have always wanted to attend the Women’s Executive Leadership Program at UC Berkeley; the program is unique in that it is designed by women for women. It addresses specific strengths and challenges facing women entrepreneurs in today’s complex corporate world. The program incorporates high-ranking women speakers from top Silicon Valley companies. I knew this four-day program would give me a sense of ownership over my leadership potential as well as embracing the different female forms of power and leadership. I also added to my community of fellow women entrepreneurs with whom I now count as friends which continues to enhance my work culture and life.