Fostering a culture or appreciation to make your company special

Startup Company Culture & Appreciation

I talk a lot about the culture and how I equate that primarily with employee engagement.  See my blog on the topic here. A very complimentary piece of this puzzle is recognition.  We don’t do it enough. Even the best of us don’t do it enough.  And when we do do it, our understanding of why and the execution seem to be flawed.  When done right though it’s a very important part of a company, the company’s strategy, and that feeling of belonging and engagement that only the best startup companies have. There’s nothing wrong with respectively fostering employee engagement by improving the company’s overall culture.

Some examples of problems I have seen in this area include:

  • A manager that never recognizes good work.  These people have a very high bar and believe, not totally incorrectly, that their team is getting paid for their work and that’s their reward.
  • The constant but quiet over-performer gets taken for granted.  This person doesn’t have these big peaks of success that make a splash.  Instead, they are so constantly above average that their managers reset what is normal for them and expect it every day.  On top of that, this person never complains so their manager assumes, usually incorrectly, total contentment.
  • Leadership at the top doesn’t value recognition and certainly isn’t going to set up a material budget for it.  We have way more important bills.  Slightly less bad, but occurring more frequently, top leadership pays lip service to recognition but doesn’t actually practice it themselves.
  • Equating perks ( also known as bribes ) to recognition.  Nothing wrong with perks but they aren’t, by themselves, recognized. It can come off as ingenuine.
  • Thinking employee recognition means an expensive program.  Thinking about money is the most important part of the recognition.
  • Handing out recognition in a way that actually, in the best case, embarrasses the employee.  In the worst-case divides the teams and is counter-productive.
  • Recognizing only one member of a team, usually the face of that team.
  • Not allowing repeat recognition ( what message does that send? )
  • And the most common one, managers and leaders just forget to think about it in the frenzy of every day.
Startup Company Culture & Employee Engagement

There are many more examples of recognition gone wrong, but you get the idea.  You need to have a plan and not just wing it.  Most importantly, every aspect of this program needs to be genuine. Not a box-checking exercise. From my extensive background in defense startup strategy and planning, the culture aspect always proves to be the most difficult to nail down, but here’s some tips from experience I’d highly recommend for any company looking to improve their startup company culture.

A great program could include some of these attributes:

  • Top-down “Practice what you Preach” – Executives and founders need to lead the way and do it too.
  • Incentivizes the types of behaviors that the leaders of the company have identified as critical to the success of the company.  These could equate to business goals and imperatives determined at the highest levels.  They could include cultural, hiring, and retention goals.  They could include customer satisfaction metrics.  The bottom line is Recognition NEEDS to be tied to the company’s strategic process.
  • Recognizes that recognition isn’t always about money.  Often the most impactful form of recognition is a leader pulling aside a key employee and telling them thank you.  I see what you’ve been doing, even if it doesn’t look like I do.  You are very good and we notice. We appreciate you. This is what TRUE recognition looks like. You can add something to sweeten the pot but THIS is the really important thing.
  • Allows for different types of recognition and reward. 
    • Public recognition – some awards could be given at company events or a special lunch, etc.  Just be careful that this doesn’t become more divisive than positive.
    • Private recognition ( some people hate being recognized publicly.  Don’t assume all people are the same.  Hopefully, you know them well enough. If not, ask.
    • Group recognition – too often it’s really a group that did something good but one person gets the public credit.  That hurts.  Have a way to fix that.
  • Has a variety of options to choose from within a budget
  • Cash ideas
    • Spot bonus programs are great.  They have virtually no delay or bureaucracy.  They allow a manager to near-instantly give an employee a small token of appreciation.  This is great because it puts the recognition in immediate time proximity to the event that warrants it.  It feels good for both.
    • Bonus in the paycheck – I know employees with not agree with this but it isn’t always about the size of the number.  We get too caught up in that and forget the actual recognition and appreciation part.
    • Non-cash ideas
      • Cool crystal (or other material ) pedestals or plaques that an employee can show off on their desk for years to come.  This will feel so much better for so much longer than if you just handed them the $125 it costs.
      • Vacation days.  One of the most appreciated gifts you can give an employee is more time with their family.  The worth to them is way more than the cost to you.
      • Certificate to the employee store ( if you have one. If you don’t, why not? 😊 ) This has so many benefits.  It allows that person to pick out one or more pieces of logo gear that suit them.  It fosters that sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.  They also become brand ambassadors every time they wear it.  Side note on company store – You can put many different approved logos on the store.  Variety of company logos plus project and program logos plus technology and product logos.  This gives them tons of options to jump on the culture bandwagon.
      • Be creative – In one larger company, I met a manager that handed out baseballs autographed by the C-Suite.  It was just fun.  Find interesting and cost-effective fun things that fit the culture and the brand.
Defense Startup Company Culture
  • Trains, teaches, recognizes, and incentivizes managers to follow the company recognition culture.  This includes making recognition part of managers’ own employee review by their supervisor. You might be that supervisor, as an executive.  Again, practice what you preach too.
  • Is consistent.  Find a way to ensure that some groups aren’t left out. People are all different.  Managers are people.  You need to make sure that your program is being spread across the whole company and not being blocked by personalities that are too busy or don’t care.
  • Manager training.  This doesn’t have to be elaborate.  Just make sure you’re all on the same page for how the program works.  How is it budgeted?  How can we be consistent across each other?  Who do I go to with questions?
  • A belly button for the program.  This could be the CEO even. Or it could be in HR or somewhere else. It does help to have someone own the program though.
  • Be fun!  This is an opportunity to cut loose a little.  Not a box-checking exercise.  Be genuine or don’t do it.
Fostering Employee Engagement

Some final thoughts about execution: 

Both the IRS and DCAA have various regulations related to both what is considered income for an employee and what costs are allowable if you are a cost-reimbursable contractor.  Be sure to run your program through these filters so you don’t get caught by surprise.

Having a culture of recognition is critical for defense companies that are thriving and growing.  Too often it is executed clumsily or worse, not at all.  Don’t not do it because of money.  Even if you don’t put together a material budget for a program, start getting into the habit of thanking people.  Your best performers are often the quietest.  They do get taken for granted because you and your managers have so many other squeaky wheels to worry about.  Over time these stars will feel under-appreciated.  It’s almost too late then.  You might as well appreciate them now because you really do.   Get into the habit of letting them know somehow.  Maybe even put a reminder in your calendar asking you if you should be appreciating anyone this week. Whatever helps you and your managers get into the habit.

If you can do this, it will go a long way to cementing that relationship with your people and helping them feel like they belong to something cool that is bigger than themselves and a place they want to stay.  Remember, it’s not only the thought that counts, but the thought really DOES count a lot.   DO something, even if it’s a kind word to catch someone by surprise.

I hope these defense startup company culture tips to fostering employee engagement help some of you expand your business strategy to focus on what truly matters within a successful company. Always happy to discuss these concepts for your company.  Contact us here if you’d like to chat


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