People used to think of awards honoring their workplaces as nice-to-haves. Building an office people wanted to work at was secondary to driving sales or establishing a household name -- the things that kept the company in business.

But the tide has turned, and culture is a company's calling card. Without internal success, all that can leak out of a business's walls -- and on its customers -- is negativity. Recognition as a great place to work -- especially from your employees, your internal ambassadors -- is much more important than we used to believe.

I recently was at the Great Place to Work Conference in San Francisco. Part celebration for the companies that made the top 100, part gathering for new insights for those who believe "employee-first" mentalities enable companies to compete, operate and grow.

Giving Employees Priority

Michael Bush, the CEO of Great Place to Work, said being a great place to work is more than an achievement--it's better for business. A Glassdoor study review in 2017 from six different research projects found a positive correlation between high employee ratings and a company's profitability. Likewise, Gallup research in 2015 noted that companies with engaged workforces are 59 percent less likely to lose employees.

Bush believes successful leaders run organizations where employees come first. We all face fears in our professional and personal growth, and leaders must be prepared for these conversations. "Leaders must be able to see and engage with fears," Bush said. "Fear is invisible. It is not easy to see."

When I don't take the time to listen to team members and help them work through fears, I miss something. Sometimes, it's something small; other times, it's something big, like figuring out how to address a concern that's big enough to make a customer question our strategy.

The conference highlighted three needs for building a strong culture that puts employees first and boosts profitability.

1. A "For All" Approach: Diversity includes a variety of facets: skin color, gender, religious affiliation, politics, thinking. Companies with a proactive approach to diversity and inclusion create programs that provide all people with benefits and learning opportunities. It pays off for businesses, too: Great Place to Work's 2018 research found that companies with a wide-ranging approach to innovation had 5.5 times the revenue growth of their competitors.

That means there's no preference given to a certain way of looking at the world. The event's theme was "For All": This means programs have to be created with everyone in mind -- not just high performers or executives -- if you want to truly be inclusive. We don't have to treat employees the same, but we have to treat them fairly. And that means including them in company programs.

2. A Default to Listening: Most companies believe they're listening when they conduct annual surveys. The Great Place to Work leaders know this is too reactive an approach to gather candid feedback. They engineer more natural ways to listen.

I spoke with Matt Schuyler, the chief human resources officer at Hilton, the No. 1 company on the 2019 Great Place to Work list. Ninety-six percent of Hilton's employees -- called team members -- reported they're treated as full members, regardless of position, according to Bush's team's research.

Hilton's designed many ways to ensure its more than 400,000 employees feel heard. That's how Hilton has not only found ways to include employees, but to also improve what it does. Schuyler said, "Listening is the foundation of learning. And learning is the foundation of leadership."

3. A Growth Mindset: How you think is more important than most realize. Our society is so focused on strategies and actions that we lose sight of the "how" or "why." Mindset, however, is the precursor. You can only take a step forward if you know where you're going.

All companies grapple with the status quo's pull. Doing what you've always done is a powerful force; it's known. But that's also the problem: While the marketplace is changing, you're standing still.

Bernard Tyson, the CEO of Kaiser Permanente, No. 7 on the 2019 Best Big Companies to Work For, shared the importance of how we think. One example: learning to speak up. To create a great place to work, leaders need the right mindset to serve their employees. A "fixed" mindset leans on the past, but a growth mindset looks for opportunities to change and adapt -- and often, employees see those opportunities first. "Leaders must encourage and celebrate a 'speak up' environment," Tyson says.

Creating a great place to work isn't a nice-to-have; it's a must-have. Inclusivity, listening and the right mindset enable you to see past your own shortcomings to establish a culture that will empower employees -- and the company -- to grow.