Amy Zimmerman didn't go to school for human resource management, but that hasn't stopped her from leaving a mark on Kabbage, the financial technology company, where she serves as its first-ever chief people officer.

During her almost-10-year tenure, the Atlanta-based alternative lender reached unicorn status with a billion-dollar valuation in 2015. It also underwent a massive hiring spree, adding around 450 staffers in the past five years alone. The company regularly ranks highly on career-review sites like Glassdoor and Comparably, and it landed on Inc.'s Best Workplaces list in 2019 and 2018.

What's more, Zimmerman says the company has retained roughly 90 percent of its employees so far this year, and a July internal engagement survey found that 91 percent of Kabbage employees would recommend working there to others.

If you ask her the cause of Kabbage's success, you can bet Zimmerman won't mention her company's plush perks, which include catered lunches, ping-pong and pool tables, and dogs everywhere. That, she is careful to note, is not her company's culture.

Rather, the culture has everything to do with making employees feel needed and valued, says Zimmerman, a former drug counselor and social worker, who says she "accidentally" fell into HR after a chance encounter with a fintech startup CEO back in 1999. "When people feel heard, they feel cared for. When people feel cared for, they do good work. And they want to stay in an environment where they feel respected and cared for," she says. "We're constantly looking for new, exciting, creative ways for people to feel the love."

Here are her three top tips for building a similarly plum company culture.

1. Culture comes first

A great culture, Zimmerman says, is one in which every employee shares the same values. Find this out early. Even at just over 600 employees, at least one of the company's three hiring leaders--Zimmerman and Kabbage co-founders Rob Frohwein and Kathryn Petralia--helps conduct the final interview for every job opening.

Zimmerman often hears her counterparts at other companies say they had no choice but to hire poor personality fits based on their crucial skill sets. "That's a very, very costly mistake," she says. "You can have the best of intentions with culture, but if you have the wrong people in the company, you're not going to be able to control the culture you create."

She preaches patience: The right candidate will eventually come along. She also recommends quickly firing employees who don't slot into your culture as intended, a lesson learned from personal experience with some particularly poor hires. "Whether it's a hiring mistake or if they were just a really good liar," don't overlook what's important, she says.

2. Time to shine

Zimmerman says Kabbage's core values emerged six years after the company was founded. The six tenets--care deeply, stay connected, inspire innovation, create "holy shit" moments, win, and unconditional commitment--now serve as the backbone of the business.

The move to wait wasn't intentional. Rather, says Zimmerman, she had just never gotten around to codifying Kabbage's core values. "It was very authentic," she says, referring to Kabbage's company culture, which was able to form naturally thanks to the delay.

Now, she recommends that other startups do the same. She points out that early on--as your culture is still evolving--your core values are unlikely to have much impact anyway. "Your culture is going to happen whether you're intentional or not."

By way of example, Kabbage's most eye-catching value--create "holy shit" moments--came from the company's customer service team, which had started awarding poop emoji pillows to the employees who best delighted customers. It took hold so deeply that when a well-meaning web designer changed the language on Kabbage's website to "create 'holy wow' moments," Zimmerman and Frohwein immediately demanded a reversal.

"We can be irreverent here," Zimmerman says. "We aren't afraid to use words that feel representative of emotions."

3. Fully embrace transparency 

Originally, Kabbage's "stay connected" core value went by a different name--transparency--until the company's leadership team realized in practice this meant only managers were focused on keeping staffers in the loop. It had to be mutual.

The change occurred in 2017, when Petralia spoke on a panel about customer experience and the importance of two-way communication between companies and customers. Frohwein, sitting in the audience, had an epiphany: That should apply to employees, too.

Kabbage now conducts engagement surveys twice a year, and appoints volunteer "engagement champions" as active liaisons between their departments and Zimmerman's people operations team. The company maintains an anonymous email system for employees to submit feedback to leadership, which has ranged from "Can you order more of this particular kind of snack?" to tougher criticisms about product or customer decisions.

The biweekly town hall meetings also feature open Q&A sessions. No questions are off-limits. Employees can put any member of the leadership team on the spot. "All of this is what makes up the culture that we have," Zimmerman says. "People know what they're getting. That's why our engagement is as high as it is, why our retention is as strong as it is." 

EXPLORE MORE Best Workplaces COMPANIESRectangle