When I started my company 15 years ago, I didn’t really know — or care — what “company culture” meant.
I figured it was a concept that only mattered to MBAs and struggling companies. I was laser-focused on building quality products and services, not fluffy-sounding “company culture.”
In other words, my company’s culture developed pretty organically.
But, during the process of building a business, I learned the value of a positive, authentic culture. And, almost without realizing it, I learned how to build one from scratch. From one employee to the hundreds we now employ in cities around the globe, my team and I have built a culture we can be proud of.
Below, I’ve outlined tips for fostering a company culture that will make work both fun and rewarding, for you and your employees.
As the CEO or founder of a company, you are ground zero for building a culture. And while that might sound a bit intimidating, if you embrace it, you can make it your own. Who you are at your core will lay the foundation of your company.
If you’re a nerd and you’re the boss, then, ipso facto, being a nerd is cool at your company.
Trying to embrace or create a culture that isn’t true to you is a big mistake.
I see a lot of people today who observe the culture at big tech companies like Google or Apple and are determined to replicate that in their own organizations. This is a recipe for failure. Emulating another company’s culture is a great way to wind up with one that you won’t relate to — or like. It will also feel manufactured and fake to everyone around you.
Remember, there’s no such thing as the “wrong” culture, but if you build one based on someone else’s ideals, you won’t recognize the company that emerges.
Of course, if you’re building a company that will have employees, you won’t be the only facet of your company’s culture. Eventually you’ll hire people who may be similar to you but who aren’t exactly like you.
That’s a good thing.
Some founders make the mistake of only hiring people who look and talk like them, thinking that this will help them preserve culture and continuity. In reality, the lack of diversity — whether in opinion, background or skillset — will end up handicapping you.
So how can you choose employees who strike that magic balance between fitting into the culture and bringing something unique to the table?
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can get along with almost any personality as long as you’re all rowing in the same direction. In other words, you need to share a common purpose. At my company, our purpose is to build great technology that enables businesses to connect with consumers via a transaction.
We’re passionate about making our customers happy — and anyone who shares that passion will thrive here.
I keep a business card on my desk.
It once belonged to an employee on my sales team.
He was the highest-performing member of his team in terms of production numbers. But while he was killing it on the sales side, he was treating our customers like crap, misleading them and otherwise contradicting our values. So I fired him.
Some people probably thought I was crazy.
How can you fire a supposed high performer? Isn’t performance what really matters to the bottom line?
I have no regrets.
Still, I watch companies make this mistake every day. They hire people who are high performers but cancerous to their culture. When you have people on your team who aren’t acting in the best interest of your company, it doesn’t matter if they’re good producers.
No matter what your company culture is like, instill a strict “no jerk” policy and enforce it.
You can’t make perfect hiring decisions every single time. This is true when you’re employee number one-and-only, and it’s true when you have a killer HR team. Some people just aren’t going to work out.
A lot of companies put serious stock in the “onboarding process,” wherein employees are inducted into your culture. They think it’s the key to ensuring a good fit.
We definitely onboard new hires — we have them meet with HR and some key employees, go through training and absorb our culture by osmosis. But let’s get real: Everyone has their best face on during the first few weeks.
It takes about 60 days to figure out whether there’s a strong culture fit. If there isn’t, you can try coaching and put together a performance improvement plan and yadda yadda, but sometimes it’s just not a good fit, end of story.
My advice in this situation is to not waste time deliberating. Start having the tough conversations early, and no one will be surprised if ultimately a parting of ways is the best solution. (In fact, many will even be relieved; if there’s not a fit, it’s probably no surprise to them.)
Culture isn’t something you can mandate or jam down employees’ throats. You should have a set of values (and, eventually, you’ll probably want to write these out and codify them) that everyone agrees to uphold. And you can and should model them as often as possible to cultivate a positive experience.
For example, at my company, one of our values is making people-centered decisions. If a new benefits packages is expensive but will deliver a significantly better experience for our employees, we’re going to do that. It’s part of our DNA. That’s one way we “show, don’t tell” and avoid forcing culture on our employees while still bringing it to life every day.
Another challenge when it comes to culture is that, as companies grow bigger, it often makes sense to acquire other companies. Any company you decide to acquire will have a different culture from yours, since no two are exactly alike.
I’ve watched many businesses deal with this difference by instituting extensive onboarding and training programs that don’t do much to change culture and often instill resentment.
To avoid this, vet potential acquisitions based not just on their financials or human resources, but on their values. If they’re entirely dissimilar to your own, you’ll probably lose a lot of the value you’re hoping to gain in the process of trying to stitch the two contradictory cultures together.
On the other hand, if the company’s culture is different from yours in a way that seems harmonious, it’s probably a good choice.
Then, once the acquisition happens, instead of trying to force the new company’s culture to blend seamlessly with your own, embrace it and let it unfold naturally.
Don’t go charging in, giving marching orders; let them continue to do what they do well and offer autonomy along with support. You’ll find that this is a far less painful process.
Company culture isn’t the sort of thing that you can control the way you might be able to control your product pipeline, office location or employee salaries. But it’s something you can shape and nurture — and if you do it right, it will be well worth the effort you put in.
By Henry Helgeson
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