At the core of the Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO)'s mission is an unrelenting commitment to helping entrepreneurs learn and grow in every stage of business. Establishing the right company culture is a key factor in success. Gary Hallgren is president of Arity, a smart mobility startup born from Allstate to provide a platform that leverages driving data and predictive analytics to make transportation smarter, safer and more useful for everyone. We asked Gary how he navigated the challenges of building a startup tech culture from within an established corporation. Here's what he shared.

 

Startups are often praised for their energetic cultures that attract talent with flashy perks and modern workspaces. What can get lost, however, are the core values that enable long-established companies to thrive. But, why choose between a cliché startup culture and critical core values? By focusing on what matters most--overall employee experience--leaders can combine the best of both worlds to create a culture that recruits, motivates and retains top talent.

I learned this lesson firsthand when my startup launched out of Allstate. As we moved from a well-established corporate office into downtown Chicago, we began competing with Google, Facebook and Braintree for talent. It was imperative to establish an innovative, fun and edgy culture to support the work we'd be doing, but I also wanted to instill the founding values that shaped our 87-year-old parent company. My goal was to craft an environment by taking Allstate's successful leadership principles and building on them to create a culture that would attract the tech talent necessary to accomplish our goal of improving transportation for everyone.

The result is a community that excites our teams and makes people want to come to work every day. Here are a few insights I picked up during this process that can help you build an authentic, engaging culture either into or from an established organization.

1.    Clarify the mission

With startups, the instinct is to immediately start building products and visiting customers. But the time spent defining the mission and culture is critical. Whether a company is starting from scratch or from an existing parent company, the mission must be clear and inspirational.

Emerging from a larger corporation means you'll have a mix of legacy employees and new talent. New employees will hold different views than seasoned ones, making alignment even more critical. When all employees understand the company's mission, they will feel empowered to work independently and successfully.

2.    Value employee feedback

I view company culture as the way employees feel because of the place they work. Some say culture is like the air you breathe, but I believe it's much more tangible than that. A workplace elicits real emotions that impact employees' lives. They may feel anxiety, stress or have trouble sleeping, but they also can--and should--feel happy, excited and motivated by their work.

As leaders, it's our job to understand what employees are feeling--both the good and the bad. A good culture is one of trust, feedback and passion rather than ping pong tables or free snacks. It's about creating an environment that allows employees to deliver on the company's mission and goals.

3.    Treat employees like customers

Just as every company should take direction from its customers, organizations must also ask employees to help guide workplace culture. You can't correct issues that you don't know about, so regular feedback is essential. You may get answers you don't like, but those are often the most valuable. I listen to employees through periodic surveys, team meetings and one-on-ones that allow us to learn and adjust.

One survey revealed that our parent company's core values--honesty, integrity, diversity, engagement and superior performance--were values that our employees overwhelmingly wanted to continue in our new venture. Without this feedback, while we were working to differentiate ourselves, we might've missed the strong culture that was right at our fingertips.

4.    Pay attention to physical space

While positive company culture requires far more than a foosball table, the physical space does play an important role. A successful workspace embodies the feeling of a company. A law firm or bank should feel different from a tech startup--but don't assume that yours must look like every other trendy tech company. Identify your own style and run with it.

In our company, we're building digital products in teams of all sizes, so the physical environment must facilitate collaboration. Creating the right space will allow us to accomplish our mission. Perks like free food, games and activities help round out the experience but aren't the focus.

5.    Model culture from the top

Once culture-focused practices are in place and feedback is good, it's easy for companies to pat themselves on the back and never revisit culture again. But a motivating work environment takes continuous effort. Employees--and even candidates--can tell whether culture is authentic or just lip-service.

To maintain a positive and engaging workplace, leadership must model ideal behaviors every day. Our leadership team doesn't work in private offices or cubes, providing an open, approachable environment. We make time to speak with anyone at the company, regardless of level. I genuinely value feedback and believe I have a responsibility to admit when things go wrong and provide solutions.

These practices, combined with the principles of our parent company, have guided our work to build an authentic, engaging and respectful startup culture. By infusing a balance of what you come from with where you're going, any company--new or established--can build a culture that will attract, retain and motivate talent. And while our work is never finished, I believe we've established an environment where employees feel inspired to build new technologies and help create the future they want to live in.

Published on: Sep 28, 2018