Corporate Culture

Reflecting upon my experiences as CEO of a startup and VP of a 200-300 employee corporation, I’ve found that while the scopes of my roles differ substantially, they share one critical responsibility: fostering a successful culture.

I always preach that an organization is no better than the people driving it. Behind the corporate facade is simply a group of humans who are bound by contracts. So it surprises me to see how often people approach management so poorly (from being oblivious or apathetic to outright antagonistic). Let’s make management more human, yes?

The first concept to understand is that culture comes from the top. Nobody likes a shitty manager. Furthermore, nobody likes an executive who enables the shitty manager to continue being shitty. It is ultimately the CEO who is responsible for defining, building, and maintaining a positive and productive proper culture.

That said, what does a “good” culture look like? This can be tricky to measure since many employees hesitate to provide honest feedback (even anonymously). My quick answer is that it’s a work environment in which employees simultaneously are satisfied and meet business goals defined by leadership.

More specifically, the observation that I make is how aligned frontline employees are with management. Do the employees believe in the mission, strategic direction, and goals set by management? Do the employees feel equipped and empowered to succeed? Do they actually succeed? Do the employees feel sufficiently heard and valued by management? Read the room to gauge morale and the factors that affect it. You can also submit surveys (take the positive responses with a grain of salt), track trends in business (e.g. revenue, customer retention) and workforce (e.g. retention, referrals) metrics, and conduct exit interviews to gain further insights into your culture.

How can a leader build a strong culture? Put the people first. That doesn’t mean provide ping pong tables and t-shirts. It means instilling and consistently enforcing appropriate values. It means communicating transparently with the team and staying aligned. It means checking in on how the employees are doing, actively listening (as in, shut up and seriously listen) to their concerns, taking action on those concerns as appropriate, and following up with the employees.

This responsibility isn’t as straightforward as most people think. This is why emotional intelligence and communication skills become more important the higher up you climb. You have to actively keep a pulse on your team and lead by example. One misstep and you risk compromising the values that you’ve preached. And trust me, people are tired of managers who say one thing and do something completely different. Put your money where your mouth is.

One example is recognizing toxicity. To clarify: honest, objective feedback isn’t an issue. However, words and actions with the intent to hurt are. There are different levels of severity here, and you have to decide where to draw the line of no return. As in, once an employee crosses that line, the result is immediate termination. Mine is egregious verbal attacks. If you malignantly cuss out someone in my organization, you’re done. No exceptions.

Anything past that line (e.g. sexual harassment, physical attacks) obviously qualifies as well. But anything before that line is more nuanced, such as passive-aggressive behavior. I wouldn’t jump to instant termination for that, but it’s still important to quickly put down your foot. Explain very clearly why that behavior isn’t acceptable and what will happen if it continues. Then ensure that the employee acknowledges this.

An important point to understand here is that inaction is still very much an action. You are consciously making a decision to allow continued behavior despite possessing negative data. Your employees will perceive that loud and clear. And their respect for you will drop before you know it. Now you have trust issues weakening the foundation of your business.

Part of a leader’s job is to make the right decisions, especially tough ones. It’s tempting to punt a termination. To simply give another chance and move onto the next task. Or maybe the offender is a high performer and losing them would harm the business. Don’t be tunnel visioned. A-players aren’t worth keeping if they’re assholes. That will always bite you in the long run.

Happy and aligned employees will stay with you longer and hit your business goals. They will treat one another and your customers well. They will support when you need them the most. The impact of your culture on productivity, growth, and retention can’t be overstated.

So don’t treat your people like an afterthought. Step out of your office and engage with your employees. Memorize their names and take action on their feedback. Prove that you are working for them as much as, if not more than, they are working for you.

People quit people, not companies. So don’t be a leader worth giving up on.