At a recent conference in Denver, Inc. and an organization called Winning Workplaces brought together leaders from a range of businesses to talk about building and maintaining great company cultures. What's the value if you have a great culture? “If your staff believes that they matter, that their opinions matter, the company soars,” says Tom Walter CEO of Tasty Catering in Chicago. “People are not just productivity units. I believe in democracy because the future is as secure as people are with working together.”
“If an employee comes to you with a problem, ask them questions first before offering a solution,” says Bob Rosner, author of The Boss’s Survival Guide. “Listen to the pronouns, if your employees use they/them and not we/us, you have problems." If your culture seems to be weak, Rosner suggests you start small. For example, before every meeting, give employees wadded up paper to throw at you when you say something wrong.
“We have a unique way of working in one big open room,” says Rich Sheridan, president of Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “No one has their own personal chair, table, or computer. On the first day, someone will push the keyboard over and say, Let’s get going. It helps to create an upward spiral of motivation.”
Norm Brodsky, a longtime Inc. columnist and founder of CitiStorage in New York City, says that culture starts with hiring. “It takes almost a year to find out what people who work for you are like," he explains. "We give every new hire 90 days probation. I hire for attitude not for aptitude; we can train for the skills we need them to have. Education is the key to sustainability of your culture while you are growing.”
“You know where you are going but you have to communicate, share where you are going,” says Jill Blashack Strahan founder and CEO of Tastefully Simple in Alexandria, Minnesota. “When people have hope for the future they will have power in the present.” To share your vision, Strahan suggests you lay out your goals on a "dream map" that you post in public areas.
"Everyone in the service industry has to come up with a test to form camaraderie around," says Larry O'Toole founder and CEO of Gentle Giant in Boston. So to that end, he asks all new recruits to run the stairs at Harvard stadium. "It’s not how fast you run in the stadium, it’s that you do your best," says O’Toole. “We're looking for people who want to give 100 percent."
“Ask yourself as CEO, ‘If I make this decision without employees, could this hurt the culture more than it helps?’" says Traci Fenton, founder and CEO of WorldBlu in Austin. “You have to decide what decision-making method is going to work best for your company. I love working by consensus because I don’t have all the answers.”
“We hire people for their strengths and then manage them to fix their weaknesses," observes Marcus Buckingham, author of First, Break All the Rules. "Weaknesses are weaknesses, not opportunities for growth. Strengths are the activities that strengthen you. Weaknesses are the activities that weaken you. Managers don't build on strengths because it asks us managers to be a lot more creative. What percentage of your typical day do you spend playing to your strengths?”
"Be vulnerable with your staff," says Paul Spiegelman, founder of Beryl, a call-center business in Dallas. “Tell them you want to change things, then ask, ‘How do we do this together?’ We can't guess what's important to employees. We have to give them ways to communicate with us. And we have to get out of our comfort zone as leaders. The more personal you can be in any situation, while being professional, that’s the way to do it.”
Younger workers and their managers often fail to understand one another when it comes to setting goals, says Dan Lissner, general counsel of Free Flow Power Corporation in Gloucester, Massachusetts. "I see a challenge of communication," he says. "Interviewing a younger candidate, I’m interested in understanding their expectations before I explain what we do. If you can’t hold their interest, there’s not a lot that can bring them back. Being more explicit in our expectations is what has to happen."
"We put a tremendous amount of responsibility on those we hire, and make sure that that’s what they’re craving,” says Darren Paul co-founder of New York City-based Night Agency. “We try to talk people out of working for us. When they say yes this is what I want, those are the ones who shine.”
“Most companies fail because of self-inflicted wounds, not external circumstances," says Steve Kimball, CEO of Inc. Navigator. "You should be fundamentally challenging your business model." Kimball advises CEOs to identify a business's top three "must-do priorities" in 2011 and then make sure the management team is focused on these goals. Without a clear set of shared priorities, he believe, a strong company culture will not take root.