A great culture is probably the single most important variable to the success of your business. However, it is often one of the most misunderstood concepts.
Internal politics has destroyed many businesses. Employees talking behind each others’ back, an abusive/uncaring boss, people not feeling motivated to do anything above the bare minimum – these are just some examples of a culture gone awry.
Building a great culture requires patience…and a strategy.
What is culture and what isn’t?
Culture is the set of values, behaviors, traditions, and rewards systems that define an organization or entity. To build a strong culture, it requires identifying with these shared values in an open environment with your team.
Many business leaders have conceptions in their mind about what culture is. However, as evidenced by rates of low employee satisfaction in the workplace, these conceptions are often misaligned. Culture is not how nice the office chairs are, how many snacks and drinks the break room has stocked, or the frequency of team happy hours.
A small startup grinding out of a garage, with a team that trusts each other, and that feels a sense of purpose and accountability, can have a far better culture than the largest multinational corporation.
Culture is about people. It is emotions and feeling. It is gauged by conversation. It is bolstered by actively listening to one’s employees.
What are the values that unite my team?
How does someone feel when coming to work each day?
Do they have trust towards the company, their teammates and me?
These aren’t questions that can be answered or resolved with a quick fix. Building a great culture requires a strategy, takes patience, and leadership by example.
Where to start?
Hiring isn’t just another job that has to be done and checked off. It is far more costly to remove a bad employee once they are in than it is to wait until you find the right fit.
There is a lot of pressure when you need people to fill roles, to go for the lowest-common denominator. That is not a winning approach long term. A cultural fit is just as, if not more important, than finding someone with the right skills and experience.
At Quandary for instance, we focus our hiring around unique strengths that someones bring to a team. Everyone has the opportunity to shape their career path within the company. During the hiring process we spend extra attention understanding peoples’ personal and professional goals – and help them achieve it, even if it means someday moving on from the firm.
During the hiring process, evaluate employees by understanding where they want to go in their career path, what they value, and what they are motivated by. Then simply listen – people reveal a lot about their motivations when given the space to speak. You may find that the potential hire is suited to a different position within the company than you thought before.
You may also find a person with all the right technical skills, that looks perfect on paper, but does not carry the same values as your company. This person is not the right fit for your team.
The only way to understand the people in your company is to talk to them. As a leader, you should have constant touchpoints with every single one of your employees.
This goes beyond discussing solely work-related topics. It includes taking a vested interested in their personal life and goals. Your employees’ mental state is the single biggest influencer of their productivity. Listening and helping to alleviate issues they may be facing will greatly improve their productivity.
When was the last time I audited the people in my organization?
What is driving Bill in IT? Where does Kate want to be at the end of this year?
What is holding them back?
Which person in the company is bringing down morale? Why? Could it be you?
If you do not know the answer to these questions – it’s a sign that you need to increase the touch points with your employees. Keep in mind that the motivations of people can change from year to year, month to month, and even week to week. Life is a constant flux and unexpected circumstances can change people’s motivations in an instant.
You should strive to have physical touchpoints with all of your employees once a month at the very minimum (the more the better). But touchpoints can also include check ins daily over text message, email, Slack, or another communication platform. Simply showing that you are there for your people beyond the output of their tasks will make significant difference in improving culture.
Learn about what drives people in your organization. Remember, some employees want public recognition, some want steadiness, and some are solely motivated by the dollar amount on their paychecks. Knowing what motivates your employees will help determine what role they best fit in and the management style they thrive under.
Create Spaces for Feedback
As a leader, it’s important to host feedback spaces between you and your employees so they feel comfortable sharing about what could be done better.
In Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” the two core dysfunctions are ‘absence of trust’ within a team and the ‘fear of conflict’. This usually comes about when people are reluctant to admit mistakes or ask for help due to fear of reprisal. A continuous culture of distrust and fear of conflict will significantly slow down a business and the creative output of your team.
To create a space of trust within a team, members need to feel comfortable sharing their opinions and be open to receiving feedback. This really begins from the top down, with managers and leaders owning up to their mistakes first, showing that it is okay.
A habit we instill in Quandary employees from Day 1 is seeing feedback as a positive outlet for growth. Responsibility is upon each employee to ask for help when needed and be able to apply constructive feedback without office politics.
Everyone hates the dreaded quarterly evaluation phase that traditional organizations employ. Regular two way feedback spaces create more trust and consistent evaluation and it normalizes the process across the company.
For instance, in a one-to-one session, some powerful questions to ask employees are:
What could be done better in the company or by me to help you succeed?
How do you believe others see you?
What motivates you to reach your metrics?
Do you feel satisfied with your work thus far? What would you like to change?
For leaders, understanding that you are responsible for your employees is important. If someone is underperforming, this should be acknowledged. Rather than assigning a judgment value (it could be for a multitude of reasons that you won’t have full context over), offer how you can best support them to be where they want to be.
This initiates an opportunity to build self-awareness in employees through an open environment for evaluation.
This is a difficult one for many leaders because transparency requires owning up to one’s mistakes. It is a lesson in humility, accountability, and self-awareness. But the rewards of a transparent work environment are invaluable. One study ranked management transparency as the most important factor in employee happiness.
Lack of transparency is damaging in numerous ways but it primarily creates resentment and distrust among team members. In an environment without transparency, people will not see the value of their work and that of their colleagues.
Cross-department meetings often end in boredom because employees may not see the relevancy of the different roles. There isn’t a clear link established on how actions across departments help each other.
Moreover, lack of transparency is demotivating. If one cannot visualize where the company is heading and their unique contribution, then it becomes difficult to find the motivation to do more than the bare minimum.
One effective method we use to establish transparency at Quandary is the daily standup meeting where we go over the game plan and actions for the day. Everyone is aware of what others are working on – encouraging accountability. Additionally, using tools like Google Calendar and Asana, everyone has access to each other’s schedules to easily book meetings and see task progress. The open lines of communication virtually through Slack means that everyone is informed of new hires, financial news, and client updates.
By encouraging cross-department transparency, you also foster innovation – since the solution to a problem can now come from anyone within the organization.
Here are some more ways you can begin to build transparency within your organization:
-Create a vision board with the company goals. Make sure the board is visible and shared frequently. The more employees can visualize the organization’s goals, the more engaged they will be.
-Make sure that each employee has a clear idea of their KPIs and what they are responsible for.
-Regularly update the entire company on strategies, important decisions, and financial health. Send out internal memos or call meetings if there is an issue that affects the entire company.
-During company reviews, share both successes and failures. As a company leader it’s important to understand that you are ultimately responsible for what happens in the organization. Shouldering that responsibility will give confidence to be transparent about mistakes and build confidence in your leadership.
Model The Behavior That You Want To See
The culture that you currently see in your organization is a reflection of the values and actions that you have lead by. In order to change it, you must lead by example.
If you want to see more team bonding happening, you need to be the one to initiate it. If you would like to see more people arriving early to the office, you need to be the first one at the office. If you want to create a culture around random acts of kindness, you need to put that in place first.
Too many business owners simply expect a strong company culture to come about naturally but aren’t willing to face up to the uncomfortable task of modeling the behavior that they want to see in their employees.
One of the firm beliefs we hold true to at Quandary is that any employee can make an impact and present a solution, regardless of title or department. An intern has just as much to offer to the strategic direction of a company as an executive.
We follow through with this by keeping open lines of communication between all roles within the company, without a need for hierarchy. It is common for senior members to ask for feedback and advice from newer hires. This empowering cultural element in our company is what enables us to constantly innovate and take new approaches.
Leading by example not only instills credibility but it gives people the space to follow. Over time, these small habits that you put in place will permeate across the organization and become ingrained in the company culture.
Understanding that people are the mark of a successful culture is the first step in measuring and building it. When you put people at the center of your organization and take the time to engage with them individually and consistently, you will understand far better where improvements need to be made. Additionally, the effort of showing that one cares about the well-being of the people in the organization is what will create unity.
Claude Silver, the Chief Heart Officer of VaynerMedia says it best: “To me, good culture means spreading kindness. It’s about connection, people caring about one another. It’s about people having self-awareness, so they care about other people as well.”
It takes time to build a solid company culture, but it pays its dividends in the long run with a happier and engaged workplace and a business that leaves asides politics, that moves fast, and serves as a role model for other organizations.