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One of the biggest lines of corporate BS that companies churn out is their claim that they have a great culture. It’s collaborative, they say. It’s laid-back and fun. It’s creative. It’s a “work hard, play hard” kind of place: sure, sometimes we pull an all-nighter, but on Fridays at 4 we’re not afraid to pull out the beer cooler and play Xbox.

I think in these cases companies confuse culture with environment. You can have a cool environment with beer and Xbox, yet still have a miserable culture with low morale, high burnout and endless turnover.

Culture has been a moving target for us in the past. When you’re a small company trying to gain a foothold, oftentimes your culture is entirely born of the mix of people you have, and more often than not, that mix of people is born of the need to have the right resources to do the job.

Just like any other aspect of business, you can let it grow organically and see what happens or you can define a roadmap and stick to it. We tried the first way for a while and it did not go well. You’d be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how negative even the smallest group of people can become; how dysfunctional. Low morale, high burnout and endless turnover.

I’ve learned that by making a habit of letting people know what a positive impact they’ve had on others, everyone picks up the same habit.

Now we have what I think the people who work here would call an awesome culture. I would even go so far as to say that our clients would call it awesome, too. In a service business, a culture can’t be great if it doesn’t positively impact everyone it touches. By the same token, a culture that does that is destined to be great.

It took a lot of mistakes, a lot of sleepless nights, some serious soul-searching and some luck, but eventually we learned what it means to build and maintain a culture that doesn’t come from a beer cooler (thought it wouldn’t hurt). Instead it comes from within the organization — self-perpetuating and self-sustaining.

Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

 

The founder can’t sustain the culture.

If you really think about what culture means, you’ll realize like I did that culture is created by the group. I can’t hand it down and make it happen. Maybe I could when the company was smaller and I had a heavier hand in the day-to-day, but even an extremely charismatic founder can only influence a growing group of people for so long. Eventually the group will form its own set of values and standards.

 

The founder can set the tone.

If “lead by example” isn’t the easiest yet least practiced way to inspire greatness in an organization then I don’t know what is. If I see something great happening, I say so — publicly. Yes, if I get a note from a client calling out great work done by a team or an individual, I make sure the entire company sees it. But what I really love to do is let one team member know that they had a positive impact on another team member. You kind of expect the boss to tell you you’re doing a good job now and then (at least, you should expect it), but knowing that someone you work with was really impressed by something you did goes a lot further.

I’ve learned that by making a habit of letting people know what a positive impact they’ve had on others, everyone picks up the same habit. Now hardly a week goes by without someone on our team sending a company-wide note thanking or praising another team member.

 

The culture has to be defined.

I used to think that having a great culture was about having that “something” you can’t put your finger on. Something unique that people just “get.” No such luck.

If you want a culture that can extend beyond the influence of the founding members, it has to be clearly defined. It has to be something you can teach to new people, and something they can teach to the next ones. It has to be something that isn’t ruined when a particularly influential member of the team leaves for some reason, and it has to stand up to the occasional disruptive bad egg who moves on quickly but can leave chaos in their wake.

It has to be something you can teach to new people, and something they can teach to the next ones.

We’ve worked hard to define our culture, and we’re refining it all the time. We define it with phrases like “no bullshit,” “if it doesn’t work, try something else” and “if you identify a problem, identify a solution.” We define it with “passion,” “actions speak louder than words” and “try harder.” But we also define it with “I’m proud of you,” “thank you” and “don’t worry about that, I’ve got it covered.”

 

Only hire people who were born for the culture.

There are some pretty cool benefits to working here, like working from home two days a week all year, being closed for the last two weeks of the year, unmetered vacation and about as casual a dress code as you can get without inviting some uncomfortable questions from clients and spouses.

Those things attract a lot of people, but those things aren’t what make up our culture — at least not on their own. Who wouldn’t want to work from home two days a week? But how many of those people feel the weight of the responsibility they take on when they do it, knowing that the first time they’re not available when someone is trying to find them, they’ve risked damaging the most important part of our culture: trust.

When we interview candidates for any position, we’re not just looking for someone who can fill the role or even someone who gets along with the rest of the team. We’re looking for someone who sees our culture for themselves and can identify with it. We’re not looking for someone who wants to work somewhere, we’re looking for someone who wants to work here.

GDDers enjoy life at the agency.

 

Remind one another of the culture all the time.

The scariest thing about growing from a small business to a medium-sized business to a big one is the possibility of losing what it was like when it was small. I think about it all the time.

But what I’ve realized is that a great culture isn’t about size, it’s about constantly nurturing that culture. You have to talk about it, check in on it and remind yourselves what it is and why it’s great. Saying things as obvious and potentially corny as “you know what I love about our culture is …” will keep it top of mind and remind everyone that it takes effort and teamwork to keep it alive.

It’s taken 15 years to learn these lessons, and we’re constantly learning new ones. Today we have the kind of culture that I think is hard to beat, and I’ve just scratched the surface in this article. These aren’t hard and fast rules on how to do it, but they’ve worked for us over the years. I would encourage you to look inside your company, try to identify what makes up the special sauce, then write it down. Teach it to the next person you hire, and then let that person teach it to the next. Provided they’re teaching all the good stuff, your culture will grow with your company.