Company culture isn't just a sign you put on the wall, a values statement you post on the website or an award you receive at the end of the year. Company culture needs to be something that is lived every day in order to engage employees to bring their best selves to work, so they can engage with customers in ways that build a true connection.

So, how do today's top organizations build these cultures of connection? By putting people first, understanding what motivates and empowers people, and aligning what people care about with the way the business is run.

I've been talking to leaders of some of America's top companies about these ideas, and here is what they shared with me about how their companies are are living their culture every day.

Put People First

According to Randall P. White, PhD., founding partner of Executive Development Group, "The notion that people are an organization's most important asset is really essential," says White. "If an organization is overly hierarchical, resists change or punishes failure, if it isn't making a place for the next generation of leaders, it creates a negative energy everyone can feel. Whereas the best organizations celebrate the contributions of all their individuals, whether they have five employees, or 500,000."

Reflect What You Want to See

Creating a great culture is about identifying and institutionalizing the habits you want to see and it starts at the top. "We can institutionalize good habits - things like caring, gratitude, appreciation, or even personal habits like reading - to better our team," says Asher Raphael, CEO of Power Home Remodeling, recently selected by Inc. magazine as a Best Workplace in America. "But if we want our team to live a certain way, the leaders of the company have to be living it as well."

This approach is particularly important with younger, more individualistic employees who did not grow up with the idea of sacrifice as a virtue and are more interested in personal fulfillment. Says Asher, "You build trust by being transparent, trusting people, and showing that you care for them more than the bottom line. Then they will give more of themselves."

Understand and Empower the Why

According to a recent survey by Dale Carnegie, 71% of today's workforce is "actively disengaged," costing companies $11 billion dollars annually. "Understanding the Why of people - why employees are connected or disconnected and how to meet the expectations of the next generation workforce - helps businesses move forward, adapt and meet their objectives," Kelly Max, CEO of Haufe US, a provider of employee-centered enterprise transformation solutions and programs.

"It's important to get everyone involved and allow people to explore and test boundaries," says Max. "Most people are entrepreneurial; they want to think outside the box. The challenge is to empower these people to improve the business. You do this by giving them freedom: freedom to fail is the freedom to succeed."

Employee Experience Drives Customer Experience

Putting people first isn't just about compensation, benefits or even remembering to celebrate achievements and birthdays. It's about remembering that your employees have physical and even emotional needs that go beyond the paycheck. When these aren't met, the customer experience is impacted.

"Our people are our biggest differentiator, so we have to attract and retain the best employees. To do that, we had to look at the employee experience, because that impacts the customer experience, says Jaspar Weir, President of TaskUs, a business process outsourcing firm that works with growing tech companies. "We focused on creating more engaging spaces that make it fun to come to work and putting more emphasis on health and wellness. We offer Meditation Mondays, wellness walks, relaxation rooms. We also recognize people who live our values by tying quality assurance, performance reviews and executive bonuses to our core values. Values create better culture which creates better businesses."

Reward People's Best Work

Rewards came up frequently as a way that companies are encouraging employees to live their values. "Our values - Build, Question, Respect - exist to help our employees do their best work. We build great things by questioning conventional approaches and treating people with respect; we tie all our decisions to these ideas," says Sam Shank, CEO and Co-Founder of last-minute hotel booking app HotelTonight, recently awarded one of San Francisco's best places to work.

Shank believes it's important to offer rewards for employees that demonstrate a commitment to the company's values. "Respect is a two way street. We think operating transparently and offering opportunities for learning and development are the embodiment of respect. And we reward employees for embodying our values with spontaneous travel perks and unlimited, untracked vacation time. The way we reward them shows we trust them to make the right decisions for the company."

Create Traditions of Respect

In many cultures, traditions of respect are an important part of establishing and maintaining business relationships. In Japan, for instance, people bow when they meet. In military organizations, people salute one another. In most businesses, people still shake hands upon meeting.

As work cultures become more tech-oriented and less formal, these kinds of physical demonstrations of respect still matter. Says Greg Besner, Founder and CEO of CultureIQ, "We have a tradition of a week-ending handshake that started right after we launched. It was a Friday, the team was working so hard, and it just felt like an act of respect needed to happen. Now it's a tradition: every employee shakes everyone's hand and says thank you."

Other physical manifestations matter as well. For instance, many CultureIQ employees select a specific company value to incorporate into their email signature. Says Besner, "It's going back to basics. People think of tech companies as being so tech oriented but I think old-fashioned habits and traditions like these can sometimes be most impactful."

Mindfulness to Empower Focus

Distractions, such as cell phones and other technology, have become a common problem of daily life. Perhaps this is one reason why many top cultures are now placing a greater emphasis on techniques like mindfulness. Mark Viden, VP of Brand Marketing at Dignity Health, one of the nation's largest healthcare systems says, "our people hold the power to heal, but to do their best work, they need to start from a centered place."

To meet this need, Dignity Health has implemented a "Reflective Pause" program to encourage busy doctors, nurses, and others to take a quick moment to be present before coming to healing aid of others. Says Viden, "When you are more centered and mindful, you will be more open to listening and interacting with others, so every meeting starts with a reflection. We've found that pausing to reflect carries deeper into our work. Caregivers even felt more present with their patients." This program has been so well-received internally that the brand has launched an external-facing campaign called #Take2Mins, which encourages those outside of the organization to take time out of their day for mindfulness to benefit themselves and those around them.

Healthy Body, Healthy Business

As our society becomes more sedentary and tied to our desks, many companies are also recognizing the importance of physical health as a value their cultures need to embrace. Chicago-based Assurance Agency offers bonuses to employees that participate in internal wellness events, which include a 5K, fitness classes, healthy snacks, health screenings, smoking cessation programs, health club reimbursement, on-site fitness center - even an internal Olympics.

Says Steven Handmaker, CMO of Assurance, "Our corporate DNA values are dominate, navigate, and appreciate. Supporting our employee's physical health needs helps them live out these values. We want them to dominate their business and personal goals. We need them to navigate their client's insurance programs, and their careers. And we believe in showing appreciation in ways that are personally meaningful. Wellness is a secret sauce underpinning all of these efforts."

To be meaningful to employees and customers, your company's values must be lived day in and day out. They must guide decisions at an institutional and organizational level. Top cultures make daily habits of putting people first; understanding, motivating and empowering their tribe members in work and in life. Perhaps most importantly, top cultures are based on the idea that people do their best work when who they are as a person is reflected in what they do for a living, and where they do it.

Published on: Jun 12, 2017