by Zach Ferres
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about “company culture” and what that really entails. A lot of people call bullshit, claiming that it’s just a way to entice talent, win awards, and get some positive press. So what really is company culture?
I can tell you one thing: It’s not ping-pong tables and bean bag chairs.
But it isn’t bullshit, either. Your business is built upon people who spend at least half of their waking hours together. That’s the textbook definition of a subculture. The relationships and connections that develop and grow within this subculture are real and cannot be ignored.
What does that mean for your overall company culture? And what can you do to improve it?
Some of the most successful and influential entrepreneurial thinkers of our generation — like Tony Hsieh, Seth Godin, and Daniel Pink — have written entire books on company culture, and there are countless blog posts, magazine articles, TED Talks, and iPhone apps dedicated to it.
But, like anything else, to make an actual difference in the culture of your company (or any subculture, for that matter), it comes down to your execution. These resources are great tools, but if you aren’t implementing the practices they preach, you might actually be hindering your company’s culture growth.
How to Create Real Company Culture
Fortunately, even if your company culture is lacking, it’s possible to turn things around. MCI famously improved its company culture shortly after the WorldCom debacle. And as both financial and software companies face public and government scrutiny, Intuit fosters an excellent company culture.
Assessing culture often involves indirect measurements, like happiness and increased productivity among employees. However, our best quantitative indicator of company culture comes from a recent Gallup poll on global workplace engagement, which shows that for every engaged employee in your company, there are two non-engaged workers. A solid company culture can remedy this problem, but when you take an inactive role in culture growth, you hold your company back considerably.
Here are four ways you can take action on the culture discussion to foster growth:
1. Walk the walk. Before trying to impose culture by slapping some “core values” on the wall at the office, it’s important to walk the walk. Leadership too often tries to impose culture, rather than let it develop organically. You have to live the values you want to have in your culture to the point that employees could almost go to the wall and write the values themselves without anyone even telling them.
2. Open up to employees. I constantly see leaders trying to harvest company culture by throwing ping-pong tables and beer in the break room. You can’t impose culture, though; it must develop naturally. It’s more important than ever to be real with people, and trying to force culture can create disconnects between your employees and your customers, who will end up confused and take their business elsewhere.
Instead, share your passion with your team, and it will become infectious. The more open and transparent you are — including leaving your door open while at work — the more your ideas and spirit will be mirrored throughout the company. People love living for a purpose, so give them core values to follow.
3. Remove the bad apples. After a few months, you’ll start to see who isn’t reacting well to the changes in company culture. These people may have obstacles to overcome, so work with them as much as possible. If they still don’t fit, then they’re the wrong people for your culture at this time — so get them off the bus and help them find a new gig.
4. Iterate. Culture isn’t static. It’s dynamic. The natural iteration of a company culture requires an open feedback loop among the team. Each culture is unique, so you’ll need to make changes that truly align with the values that you live every day in your business. Having a constant pulse on the feedback loops will allow you to better gauge where your culture is at so you can steer the ship in the right direction.
It’s really easy to get caught up in the discussion surrounding company culture and forget to actually implement the great nuggets of information you pick up from it. But your culture is more than free beer and ping-pong games — it’s your life source. And acting on these discussions can produce real-time, tangible growth for your business.
Simply lead by example, keep communication open, and you’ll set your company up for success. What would happen to your business if you solved the 66 percent disengagement uncovered by the Gallup poll?
Zach Ferres is the CEO of Ciplex, a full-service interactive agency that helps clients succeed online by creating award-winning digital solutions for online marketing, e-commerce and content management systems, and social network platforms. Follow the company on Twitter.
Laura Morton/The Chronicle | Courtesy of Zach Ferres