Culture, Leadership

What Does a Successful Company Culture Look Like?

A good culture is something I was always very proud of in my
business leadership tenure.  There was no
formula or prescribed set of tasking to get there.  We just felt we had it.  But really, what is a good culture?  It’s not just a “we’ll know it when we see
it” situation, there are real, concrete things that make it up.   Over the years, I have spent time educating
myself on what others think of culture and what a successful company culture
looks like.

 Let’s begin with what a successful company culture is not.

building a company culture that works

Climbing walls, free soda, arcade machines, optional pet insurance, a wet bar and even a good PTO plan are not culture.  These are perks. Perks are good, don’t get me wrong.  Perks without a framework though are temporary.  Too many people confuse these with the actual culture.  You can have fun in your organization, and this may be an important dynamic you want to foster.  That’s great!.  But this “fun” needs to be overlaid on something more permanent if you want to retain people longer than a couple years. The bottom line is, perks just aren’t enough. 

In my personal experience, that framework is one of strong
Employee Engagement.  The best company cultures
are ones that have been built around employee engagement and THEN layered with
strong fringe benefits, work environments, perks and the myriad of other things
associated with culture. An engaged person is someone who very much wants to be
a part of something bigger than themselves, and they will own that feeling.

Nothing beats the excitement of being part of a fully
engaged team.  Everyone is rowing the
same direction and for the most part, no one dreads coming to work.  Customers are happy.  Your best people are excelling and
staying.  Word gets around and the best
want to come work with you.  Literally
everyone wins.  Well except for your competitors,
I guess. 

Okay, so we’ve established that a successful company culture
is important. That sounds good in theory, but what does it really mean, and how
do you get there?

I think there’s a pretty decent outline for the types of
things you need to do. 

When a company is small, say under 20 people, the executive
team (usually founders plus a key leader or so) 
are excited. At this point that are having some success based on their
vision.  You don’t get to 10 or 20 people
without having some of that success.  
Every person on the team likely works directly for the executive
team.  They know each other. They know
what makes each other tick.  They know
the vision and know how they fit into it. 
There is so much interactivity that people get that through osmosis,
even if not deliberately.  People might
even share lunches and late-night tasks that build insights into each other, and
more importantly, a camaraderie.

No surprise to anyone, growth makes that harder and harder.  As you continue to add employees you must
also introduce levels of management. 
This is good.  It’s necessary even
.  But as you’ve no doubt seen, this also
 creates a level of separation between
the executives and most of the team.  The
more you grow, the more separation.  Most
people say “more communication” is the solution.  Yes. But no. 
That’s not the problem either. 
Communication, like perks, is critical. 
However, its only effective if applied against that framework of
employee engagement.

So what do we do?

A company is an organization that has a set of defined criteria
that leads to success.  Things like
financial success, sustainable growth, support for our core values, breaking
into new markets, and increased enterprise value are examples of things that
fall into this category. At the end of the day, we should know where we are
going as a company and how we define that success.  It needs to be consumable by everyone.  You’ll see more about that below.

Our team of individuals, on the other hand, is made up of
unique people.  Each person has their own
path, their own struggles, and their own short and long term goals.   Some people are nearing retirement.  Some are just beginning their career.  Some have families.  Some are searching for meaning in their
career beyond a paycheck.  Some are
looking for a healthier work life balance. Some want to be promoted to manager.
Some want to stay technical.  But
EVERYONE is different.

A company with a fully engaged workforce excels at
connecting and aligning these two separate sets of goals.

You can see how this becomes a geometric problem as your
headcount grows if you don’t handle it smartly.

Strong and prepared managers are the key to a successful
company culture.  I’ve found in my
industry that many individuals become managers of people because they excel at
their technical expertise.  Perhaps they
are very good at managing complex projects by allocating resources and handling
crises as they occur.  Okay, that’s fine.
Many of us have been there and done that. 
BUT, these new managers don’t identify as “people” managers.  They often look at their daily job through
the lens of completing that project, maybe even rolling up their sleeves and
helping those they oversee do that technical work.  Companies often reinforce that because they
too want those projects done and on time. 
So you end up with managers, that have people reporting to them, who
have little to no people training or company expectation that they will excel
at THAT part of their job.  When it comes
time to review that managers performance, I would bet that conversation is
almost entirely surrounding the other parts of their job.   Did the work get done?  Did you help meet the deadlines? Are the
customers happy? Etc. 

By the way, this just gets worse as a company starts to
number in the thousands of employees. 

Okay, so how do we avoid this situation and ensure we are
building a successful company culture?

Building A Startup

Every person in the company has some say and some responsibility to that engagement and culture.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s say the company team is made up of employees, managers, and executives This team must work together to achieve a great culture of engagement. 

Individual employees need to own their own
engagement.  Most want that.  The stereotype that people are chicks in a
nest saying “feed me, feed me,”  isn’t
real in my experience. People want to be a part of something bigger than
themselves. That purpose should be more than just making the company more
money.   Individual employees should :

  • Understand themselves.  Where are you right now? What’s important to
    you at this point in time?  What are you
    preparing for, for the future?  What
    challenges in and out of work do you have? 
    What skills and tasking fulfills you the most?  What parts of the job are a real challenge to
    you? What would you like your next role to be and why?
  • Be prepared to talk to your manager about this
    assessment. They cannot help you engage if they don’t know much about what
    really drives you.  You shouldn’t have to
    dump it on unsuspecting managers, but it shouldn’t be like pulling teeth when
    they do engage you. You only need to share specifics where you are
    comfortable.  If there are important
    drivers to your engagement that you are not comfortable sharing, try to find
    abstract ways to communicate that.
  • Own your engagement.  Don’t be a chick 😊
    . This is a partnership. If your company extends a hand to help you get more
    engaged, grab it, try to accomplish good things, and enjoy it while it’s

Individual managers need to :

  • Really get to know your direct reports.  Remember they are all different and it will
    help to understand those differences. 
    There can be no cookie cutter approach here.  Because of that, hopefully your number of
    direct reports are under 10. Get to know them personally too.  Do they have kids at home?  A spouse that is working?  Are they taking  care of an ill family member?  Special needs at home?  All these drive that person’s goals.  So, you need to know these things.  Don’t be intrusive.  Just care and try.
  • Align each person’s talents and goals with that
    of the companies.  The best managers
    spend significant energy on each person to determine buttons of
    engagement.  Motivation is key. What
    drives an individual and how can I connect them into our overall goals.  Too often, we get lazy and treat each person
    like they have the same interests in getting promoted and moving up the ladder
    the same way.  This is not true at all.
  • Coach their team on how to look at their daily
    priorities using the above information. Help the individuals meet both personal
    and company goals, as well as thoughts on how to improve that over time.
  • Recognize people.  This is so important.  Recognition not only makes people happy, but
    it also rewards and incentivizes activities that are further the goals of the
    company. When people do good things, they are much more likely to make a habit
    of it if they feel it’s being noticed. 
    That habit is the sustainable engagement that builds excellent culture.

The executive team must :

  • Articulate the vision and what it means to be a
    part of this company.  It needs to be
    clear and concise.  This is where the
    strategy is created, after all.  These
    members of the company must be able to sell why this is special and others
    should be excited to be a part of it. 
  • Be authentic when they communicate the
    significance of where the company is going. 
    If you fake it people will know.
  • Set the tone and set good examples.
  • Provide tools for your managers in the form of
    information and expectations, as well as the time in the day to focus on this.
  • Model their behavior regarding direct reports after
    how they want the managers to collaborate with their direct reports.
  • Recognize when the company succeeds.  Take measures to allow everyone to feel proud
    of these accomplishments.  It takes the
    whole team to succeed. Make sure they all know that you are proud and humbled
    by what you have collectively accomplished.
  • Understand your own engagement and work towards
    aligning your personal goals with that of the company.  If you are disengaged it will be difficult to
    be genuine and authentic.

If done correctly, this can result in individuals at every
level achieving both maximum satisfaction on the job, and attainment of
personal goals, while helping drive the company’s success.  This is scalable and make sense for any
organization of 20 people or more.  There
are some critical things needed to accomplish this.  Nothing is ever as easy as it looks on
paper.  Things to keep your eye on:

  • Try to keep the number direct reports to under 10.  This is true for executives as managers as well.
  • Establish a clear set of expectations for managers.  They can be the biggest link in this chain.  If they don’t take it seriously, or think it’s part of their main job, it won’t work.  Give them the tools and some time each week to interact with their team outside of a project context.  When you evaluate your manager’s performance, how well they are engaging should be a big part of it. 
  • Breaks in communication hurt.  This is where communication for the sake of communicating isn’t the solution.  But communicating between these groups against this framework is critical.  If executives aren’t properly sharing strategy, purpose and vision this doesn’t work.  If managers can’t consume that information and repackage it for each person individually, or as a team, this doesn’t work.  If employees are unable to communicate their ambitions and individual engagement buttons, this won’t work.  It takes the whole team communicating against this framework.
  • Recognition is critical.  Not only is it deserved, but it makes people feel good and want to do good things more often.  At a macro level recognition of a high performing team with a fully engaged workforce could lead to even richer benefits and perks.  On the other hand, a poorly engaged workplace with the coolest perks won’t be sustainable.
  • It’s so much harder to stay engaged when your staff is all remote. Don’t let that be an excuse.  Too often, out of sight is out of mind.  The only way you know someone is engaged is to talk to them before their exit interview.
  • Don’t underestimate the cost of disengaged people on your team.  They bring others down and undo your successes quickly.  If you can’t see how it would get fixed cut the ties.

At the end of the day, there are too many fancy ideas about culture in my opinion. Having an environment of high employee engagement is what makes people feel like they’re surrounded by a successful company culture. That’s the backbone. Other culture constructs work better against this backdrop in conjunction with high engagement.  When it comes to work and cultivating a career, there is nothing more exciting and rewarding than being in a high performing and fully engaged team.  Those are the companies that hit homeruns.

If you are interested in diving deeper into this topic, I
would encourage you to look at Blessing White’s X Model of Engagement.  Their model aligned so well with how I felt
about company culture, that I eventually adopted many of their terms.  If you take a look at this video, you’ll see
what I mean.  It’s a fun illustration
that hits on many of the same points above.

Always happy to set up a call to discuss more if you have
your own experiences, whether they be different or the same.

– Jay


5 thoughts on “What Does a Successful Company Culture Look Like?

  1. Mary Piersa says:

    Jay – Excellent blog, I’ll be forwarding it to my daughter who is an Operations Manager in Seattle. Greatest takeaway for me is how you provided the roles for each level of the organization, very clear and concise!

    1. Jay Jesse says:

      Thanks Mary! thanks for stopping by

  2. Kelly Coumatos says:

    This is very insightful. Hits/identifies critical core pressure points – lots of good lessons learned here. Thank you.

  3. Chris Alexander says:

    Great blog Jay. Culture is about employee empathy, loyalty and inclusion!

  4. Daniel J Hughes says:

    Jay this is a great read and it falls in line with my argument that balanced companies don’t have a safety culture. They have a great business culture that cherishes safety and the end result is safe employees. Key performance indicators for safety and health that are world class indicate a great business culture.

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