At the Northwestern Mutual New York office, we have free snacks, cold-brew coffee on tap and an open-door dog policy -- some of the remaining benefits from our pre-acquisition LearnVest days.

They're fun perks. But you're wrong if you think granola bars and coffee are what draws employees to a company. The smartest young workers are savvier than that; the real unicorns are looking for  flexible schedules, a sense of bigger purpose, access to mentors and more. If you want to create the culture that will attract and keep top talent, you have to be willing to meet them where they are.

So, here are some ideas that may help you build a culture that will entice the best workers.

1. Create Work-Life Flexibility

A startup doesn't get off the ground without hard work. There's no such thing as a successful startup that doesn't entail long hours. As seen with the gig economy which has fueled a lot of the economic growth in the last decade, employees really prefer some flexibility in their lives--dropping off and picking up their kids from school, working from any location, flexible work schedules.

Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, employs what he calls a distributed workplace allowing employees to work from anywhere. Trying to create some sense of flexibility in your employees can yield great results. Keep in mind that I don't mean employees should work outside of the office all the time. However, when employees have autonomy over their schedules and lives, it results in a greater commitment to your company and culture, longer-tenured and happier employees.

2. Recognize Family Needs

Whether your potential employees are some of the 64 million Americans living in multi-generational households or are just starting out on their own, companies, both Fortune 500 and mom-and-pop shops alike, can aim to offer benefits within their means. As with flexible work arrangements, benefits such as eldercare, adoption, on-site daycare, infertility treatments, and domestic partner benefits go a long way in helping employees who are at various life stages. You want your workers to feel appreciated and respected and recognizing where they are in life is a start. 

3. Invest in Your Employees

Investing in your employees doesn't take much effort, whether it's recognizing their work anniversary, providing learning and development opportunities or giving a gift card. Who wouldn't love an additional five days of vacation on their fifth-year work anniversary or the chance to expand their knowledge and skills? Companies are doing really cool things in the learning and development space including online learning courses that don't have to break the company bank.

A more substantial perk that's gaining popularity is sabbaticals. It's not just college professors or book authors who are taking sabbaticals. After some committed years of work, a "break" refuels creativity and loyalty to the company and its mission.

4. Choose Smart Mentors

It's my number-one piece of advice for entrepreneurs, and it should be yours for your employees. For me, when I was starting LearnVest, finding mentors was important because I needed people to tell it to me straight and push me harder by not sugar-coating what I was doing wrong. Lee Barba, former Chairman of Thinkorswim, would push me early on that we weren't focusing enough on our technology strategy. As a result, I made it my number one focus, so that it became where I put 50 percent of my time and energy. That resulted in my company being acquired.

From the perspective of your bottom line, your employees should have a clear-cut avenue for seeking out mentors. And you should help them find those mentors by making the process easy and allowing time for mentor meetings in your employees' work days. The best mentors will give honest feedback that gets results because it comes without the pressure of a boss-employee relationship. If you don't believe your bonus is on the line, you're going to react to constructive criticism less emotionally than if you're panicked about your income for the year.

Oh, and while you're at it, make sure your mentors -- or, as I like to call them, the advisors on your board -- are in place, too. No business will grow and thrive without them.

5. Hire the Smartest and the Best

Nothing is more powerful or important than what Netflix once dubbed stunning colleagues. When you're surrounded by smart and talented people, you feel as if you're learning and growing every day at work. And, there's nothing like creating an environment of excellence where employees feel they can thrive.

Take this advice a step further -- and hire people who are even smarter than you are. Entrepreneurship isn't an ego boost; in order to succeed, you need to accept, expect and cultivate criticism. Make it clear to your employees that they can tell it to you straight and that "yes" isn't the answer you're always looking for.

Northwestern Mutual is the marketing name for The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (NM), Milwaukee, WI and its subsidiaries.

Published on: Oct 1, 2018