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How to Build a Real Company Culture That Stands the Test of Time

Company culture is not about pizza parties and bean bag chairs.

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BY Molly Reynolds - 09 Aug 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It's certainly easy to fall into media hype when we're constantly being fed blockbuster-worthy stories about how entrepreneurs use their creativity to do business. But it's getting a little out of hand.

Just last week, a journalist I'm connected with on Linkedin recently shared a pitch he'd received from an entrepreneur who is selling his internal organs to fund his startup (of course, hoping this will get him into the news). Despite how some others on the thread reacted, I'm pretty sure the guy wasn't joking; additionally, I've seen my fair share of similarly shocking stories from real people.

This thirst for media attention has also crept its way into the bones of company culture. I've witnessed many a battle between two startup founders who try to "out-entrepreneur" each other when it comes to culture and it sounds a little something like this:

"We really care about our employees' health. Sitting is the new smoking, so we have invested in standing desks."

"Well, standing is the new sitting, so WE will now have treadmill desks."

"Oh! Well, ya know all that electricity is really bad for the environment. We are actually building giant hamster wheels for our employees to work in."

"Well, if you were really smart, you'd build your office into a full gym. That's what we're doing."

And the list could go on and on and on. Let me tell you, I've visited these offices and was more than just a little distracted by company "perks" that aren't rooted in the actual work. While having a discussion with my millennial cousin, she revealed to me that the reason she left a job at a major startup was that she felt the culture was getting in the way of her upward mobility.

"We have free lunch every day and have to slide down a firehouse pole to get out of the building," she told me. "It was fun at first, but now I just wish they'd help me move up in my career."

And therein lies the problem. In an effort to have the best company culture, it's easy to lose sight of what that really means. Driving true employee engagement is the goal. It is much more important than a flash-in-the-pan media story about the weird things you're getting your employees to do for "culture." And if you do engagement right, chances are your company will grow exponentially and then you'll really give the media something to talk about.

Silicon Valley HR Leader, Matt Frassica, about how to build a strong company culture and he laid it all out for me (hint: it does not involve building a giant hamster wheel).

Here it is:

Develop or Die

One of the greatest lessons those of us from Gen X, and any other generation really, can learn is from millennials: keep development on the front burner. Frassica says "Employees want to know how to get to the next level and, very specifically, what you are going to do to help them get there."

The Individual Development Plan (IDP) is an employee driven, manager supported tool designed to guide each employee to the next level. Some employees want to become managers. Some want to master their current role. Some want to develop into a completely different job family. "The IDP and the support it has from your company's leadership is the empowerment employees want from you," Frassica explains. "They want to know you believe enough in them to invest in their development, whether it is with your company or another company down the road."

Pay to Win

Companies do not have to shovel cash at talent, but you had better have a solid compensation philosophy that is competitive and commensurate with your industry. The best rule of thumb is to take compensation off the table as the biggest concern for employees. "Most employees would rather know they are doing a job that matters and working for a manager and with a team, they love," Frassica says. "In almost every exit interview we conduct, we find that salary was not the number one motivation for leaving. But that also does not mean it should be ignored."

Find and Define Your True North

If I quizzed any of your employees on what was your company's mission and vision, what would they say? Their response pretty much predicts whether they will stay or leave in the short term. Employees want to know that the work they do contributes to the direction your company is trying to go. Whether they are coding the next big software program or processing bi-weekly payroll a clear mission and vision statement, and the direction from your leadership team on how they matter to that mission and vision, is key. Frassica's key questions: "Are goals and expectations tied to the vision and mission? Can every employee in your organization describe how their work contributes to the 1-, 3-, or 5-year plan?"

To Manage or Not to Manage: That is the Question

This is the single most important relationship any employee has at work is with their manager. Are your managers well trained and are receiving continued development to BE good managers?

"Many technology startups fall into the worst pitfall: they hire bright, innovative engineers who went to school to and based their careers on building and fixing STUFF," reveals Frassica. "When they perform really well, many leaders automatically assume the next step for them is management. But that is often farthest from the truth."

Step one: ask your people managers if they actually want to MANAGE PEOPLE. If the answer is yes, then great- you know what to do next. But if they are not sure, or if they are clear that they do not want to manage people, then you must be able to define the career track and opportunities that best fit that individual contributor. (Hint: see step 1).

Culture IS Behavior

So many leaders make the mistake of creating gorgeously written statements about culture and what it means to their organization. Posters are printed and plastered throughout the company: in conference rooms, in bathroom stalls, and in the break-room right next to the Kombucha machine. "This is NOT how you build and sustain a culture that matters," Frassica says frankly.

Find out what matters to your employees and focus on the behaviors it takes to accomplish that. Behaviors can be changed and trained. Frassica recalls, "At one organization I was at, we wanted to create a culture that was driven by the employees, NOT the CEO. So we asked every person what mattered to them. One key thing we learned: people HATED all of the meetings they were attending but knew the meetings were necessary. So we used focus groups to hone in on how to change this to work to help every person succeed and thrive."

From those focus groups, they developed the behaviors they were looking for when it came to meetings. The meeting organizer was to create an agenda PRIOR to every meeting and send it to each attendant ahead of the schedule. Meetings were then assigned a timekeeper to stay on agenda so that people's valuable time was managed and protected. Additionally, meetings that started more than 15 minutes late were automatically rescheduled. Frassica comments, "Soon, we saw an uptick in productivity and engagement from this one simple change."

Really, it all comes down to focus. Certainly creating an environment that is easy, functional, and fun to work in is valuable; however, appearances can not come at the cost of productivity. In building or improving a company's work culture, the most valuable tools any entrepreneur has are the opinions and assessments of the employees themselves. Concern with what the perception is from those on the outside can never be valued over the perception of those operating from within.

A company's success is built by ensuring individuals success. Creating a company culture that "works" as well as it "looks" requires being in tune with ALL the concerns of your employees. Free lunch is only perceived as a "perk" when the employee feels the most basics concerns are covered as well. Conversely, a business owner with employees that are not tuned into the priorities and concerns of the company they work for is also problematic.

 

Feeling valued is a great motivator; additionally, it's a door that swings both ways. Building a successful company culture requires a dialogue with everyone involved and a successful company understands it's a conversation they must never stop having. In short, building a company culture is great but a successful one comes with a high price tag: wisdom.