Donte @ Seattle Interactive

Donte recently gave a talk at the Seattle Interactive Conference on company culture. Entitled “How to Suck Less,” he described the mistakes many make when considering company culture and described a framework for molding a corporate culture of your own. We asked him to summarize the key points of his talk for the blog.

A lot of companies allude to a great company culture, but that’s often a statement rooted in marketing more than in truth. At Substantial we’ve managed to create a culture that’s unique, vibrant and that we’re happy to claim as our own. We don’t claim to have solved every problem, but we have managed to create something worthy of pride and we’re uncompromising in our desire to maintain it. Here’s a basic primer on what we’ve learned along the way.


What’s Company Culture?
Culture is a set of shared beliefs, values, and practices. A lot of companies mistake their benefits and perks (paid paid vacations, showcase office spaces, flex-time, etc.) as culture. Your perks are not your culture. Instead, your perks should be a reflection of your culture, as along with everything else they are defined by what your organization chooses to prioritize. Thus, culture is a much bigger idea, as it’s what inspires, guides, and drives your company, and is defined as much by your history as it is where you’re heading and how you plan to get there.

Why is Culture Important?
Many companies regard company culture as some new phenomenon since it’s been getting an increased amount of attention from writers in recent months. Company culture exists within all organizations whether it’s explicitly acknowledged or not. As mentioned earlier, it informs everything your organization does in an unending feedback loop with business practices and culture influencing one another. A few of the areas in your company impacted by culture:

- HR - If you’re constantly getting sued or are otherwise being informed that you aren’t providing a comfortable, safe, productive work environment, you may want to look into that.

- Staffing - Recruiting is expensive. Training is expensive. Happy employees don’t leave. Happy employees evangelize to the skilled friends they have. Happy employees help to relieve the burden of staffing. You like relieving burdens, don't you?

- Operations - Are the facilities/equipment you’re providing enough to maximize productivity? Are the processes you have a source of frustration? Is your organization dedicated to removing as much “professional friction” as possible?

- Sales/BD/Marketing - What’s the story that you tell the outside world about your organization? Is it consistent and sincere or is it whatever it takes to "seal the deal?" Is it the same one you tell your employees internally? Would that story resonate with your staff or would they roll their eyes? The first group of people that should be “drinking the kool-aid” isn’t your customers (potential or actual), it’s your employees.

- The Work - Is your company constantly fighting fires or are you always calm and collected? Does your company support getting work done or is productivity a constant uphill battle?

In short, your culture is your business. And your culture exists whether you actively cultivate it or not.

Company Culture is Alive
Culture isn’t permanent. It’s not going to shatter at the smallest inconvenience or move so quickly that you’ll show one day to something unrecognizable, but it’s adjusting a tiny bit every day. Things that tug your company culture in new directions include company size (and changes in, whether growth or reduction), organizational maturity, new skills, prosperity, and of course, hardship. Rather than be a cause of stress, however, this flux represents an opportunity for each of us to do the small (and big) things that build over time to create a better culture for ourselves.

How Do I Foster (The Right) Culture?
Once you’ve accepted that culture is important and that you want to do something about it, how do you even get started? It’s going to take work, but what follows is a basic framework to get going.

First, company culture follows some of the same patterns as human psychology. In this case the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes to mind, which says that there are basic needs that need to be met for a healthy mental state. This hierarchy, topped by self-actualization, is supported at the bottom by physiological needs. Likewise, companies need to get past the initial pains of survival/sustainability before culture can truly become stable. That’s not to say that a positive foundation can’t be created, but there’s organizational comfort in organizational stability. Keep the lights on and pay your bills. All the free food in the world doesn't mean anything if you're constantly worried about whether you'll have a job next week/month/year.

Once you’ve got those fundamentals covered, it’s time to focus on dictating more of what you want (yes, this can be done in parallel with getting the basics covered). Then it’s time to define why your company exists and what’s important.

Define your mission. You can find plenty of resources on writing a mission statement. Mission statements should be short, sweet, and direct. It should define what your company is and what it’s trying to be. This mission should be shared with everyone. It should inspire them.

Define your values. Again, there are plenty of resources to help define these, but you need to determine what your company finds important. What’s key here is NOT to list the values you want to have, but to list the values you actually have (if you want to change your values that’s a different, but also valuable exercise). These aren’t simply words, these should dictate everything. Take this seriously. Share the results.

Demonstrate your values. The reason you should capture the values you actually have, not the ones you want is because your values need to make sense. If they aren’t sincere, then that will be immediately apparent. Sincerity matters. If you’re going to say work-life balance is important, you can’t follow that up with demands for an 80-hour work week. Say it and mean it. Zappos values customer service, so they not only start every employee in the customer service department, they then pull people from all parts of the company (including the CEO) to help with customer service over the holidays. Live your values.

Note that this hasn’t said anything like “throw more parties,” “have a 401k match,” or “install a DJ booth.” As stated earlier, those perks don’t create a culture. Instead, they’re a manifestation of your culture. If you’re going to throw parties, do it because you value a strong community. If you’re going to pay for conferences, do it because you support continuous improvement for your employees. Those benefits and perks are very important, but they aren’t something that should be chosen willy-nilly because you read it in a magazine or think it'd be cool, they should exist because they reinforce what your company holds dear. It’s not about money or creating a “culture czar” position within your org, instead it’s about doing whatever it takes to move the needle in the direction you want it to go.

Culture is a harder problem to tackle than many have considered. It touches all parts of your business, and acts as an modifier to other decisions that are made. It’s also a moving target, but that movement creates opportunity. Everyone can (and should) attempt to improve their company culture, and the creation and maintenance of said culture belongs to everyone, not just leadership. What’s important is to realize the kind of culture you want to foster, share that, and then to be uncompromising about creating and maintaining it, regardless of the hard choices that may need to be made. Your company is yours, so go and create a culture that works for you. Put simply: Build a company where you want to work.

Images from Ario.