There are a four reasons that people want to work somewhere. Well, there are probably infinite reasons, but for the sake of argument let’s say there are four main reasons:
- You are really impressed with the work the team does
- You’ve heard it’s a really great place to work
- You just really hate your current job and need a new one
- Your mom is throwing you out of the house at the end of the month and you’re going to be couchsurfing if you don’t have an apartment lined up and you need money for a security deposit
I can’t help with #3 or #4, other than to say good luck and ask lots of questions in the interview.
Number two, however, is the sweet spot, the place where you want your workplace to be. A word-of-mouth miracle that attracts talent from all over. When you’ve got something special going on, an electricity crackling through the people on your team, you’ve got a good culture. When your coworkers are not just coworkers but voluntary friends, enjoying spending the workday together, you’ve got a good culture. When you find small droppings in the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen and your electrical wires are frayed, you’ve got mice.
Ideally, once you’ve got #2 down and working well, #1 will follow.
The benefits of great culture
Having a coherent culture brings all sorts of benefits, each of which has value, some of which are financial.
- You will attract better talent organically
- You will see less attrition
- Team productivity will be higher than it would be with a poor culture
- Quality of work will be higher
- You will genuinely enjoy your work and the people, and they will too
- You will possibly be on the cover of Forbes one day when you’ve become the most successful company in the world at whatever it is that you do.
As I’ve talked before, the three key competencies your organization needs are Process, Strategy, and Culture. Each of these is distinct, but all interlock to create a working place of business. Process and Strategy have been written about ad nauseum, so you can google those.
Culture might be one of those things we don’t realize exists unless it’s really bad or really good — but we can certainly decide which direction it goes.
Thoughts on Culture
Culture, though, is the hardest aspect of team building to pin down, and arguably the most critical. In every organization I’ve been in, the culture shines through in key ways. From the way the office “feels” to the way leadership communicates to the way people sit around and chat at lunch. When you have great culture, people tell you how great the culture is. When they leave they miss the job. They recommend their friends for positions. They protect the culture fiercely. They want to grow the business.
When the culture is bad you hear a lot of “I wish they’d tell us X” or “godd*mn my boss is an ass” or “I just can’t with this place.” You know how it goes, I don’t have to tell you.
Like process and strategy, culture starts at the top and it has to start early. Everyone on the team looks to those with tenure and those with rank to decide how to behave and how to work. Culture is like the Force from Star Wars: it’s nothing specific, but it’s in literally everything. Unlike the Force, which is make believe, or process, or strategy, it has to be cultivated daily. It has to be lived and breathed and cultured, like one of those stinky kombucha scobys.
You’ve got to take the things you think are important and put them to work in every thought, decision, and outcome. Staffing decisions, strategy decisions, performance reviews… all of it stem from your culture.
Don’t get it twisted around, however, culture is not these things:
- How you run sprints
- What time you do your stand-ups
- Your performance reviews
- How you do raises or promotions
- What titles you use (Chief Happiness Officer?)
These things are all part of process and in some cases your strategy. They can be course-corrected and dictated from the top down. They are not organic — they are often based on committee decision and will often stay the same for months or years. These are not your culture.
Instead, culture is born from the things that are harder to do and harder to quantify. If someone on the team feels like they can ask tough questions of management in an open setting, that could mean you have a transparent culture. If, without being asked, people keep the office tidy, that means you have a culture built on respect.
If, however, people leave the place a mess or steal other peoples’ lunch or fill in the blank, you could have a bad culture. If your people are leaving early and showing up late, your culture probably stinks. It’s time to fix it.
My experience with driving culture
First of all, it’s not easy, but it gets easier. I started it first by asking myself what my strengths were. I am relatable and am deeply empathetic. That drove my decision to use vulnerability. I could do that without going outside of my comfort zone. Then I asked what I was always missing from leadership and organizations. That lead me to honesty and humility.
Based on this introspection, I decided to firmly hold those three values as core to the culture of my group:
That led me to various other values like education, communication, hard work, zero-blame, being a little weird, curiosity, individuality, etc.
It’s not enough to just list these and stick them on the mirrors in the bathrooms — you have to live the values you want to see. Socrates has a really great quote about that:
Be as you wish to seem.
That means every week I’m standing in front of my entire team talking about mistakes made and wins experienced. In one-on-ones I accept blame where due and I reflect on what I could do better. This allows me to grow as a leader and to hold my peers accountable. Those values above breed themselves in others, they are infectious. I don’t always know what I’m doing, and when I take risks it shows people they can take risks too.
Because of these cultural decisions, we have a self-maintaining team. Those who don’t live by the culture self-select out after a time, and that’s perfectly fine. Our culture isn’t the best culture, but it’s the right culture for us. Also because of our culture, we have an amazing place to work. :-)
You can build a good culture by asking yourself a few questions:
- What values are important to me as a person?
- What would I change about my organization (or past organizations) to make it better?
- What key behaviors will drive our particular business forward?
Ask yourself and other cultural stakeholders (read: managers) on your team to write down the answers and then share and have a conversation about it. The common threads there are your culture.