A great company culture -- one that helps you recruit, retain, and motivate the right employees for your business -- is hard to build and even harder to maintain, especially when you grow rapidly.

When your core group is optimistic, passionate, and hard working, that becomes infectious. But still: growth makes maintaining that culture extremely difficult.

That's why some companies do something counterintuitive: they forget about culture and focus on building a community instead.

The following is from Claudia Fry, the VP of People at FiveStars, a San Francisco-based company that helps local businesses offer unique rewards, personalized services, and intelligent automated messages to turn transactions into relationships and deliver great customer experiences.

Here's Claudia:

There's a lot of attention focused on the importance of startup culture when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. Whether it's flexible work hours, catered lunches, gaming lounges or happy hour Fridays, companies seem to go increasingly out of their way--and often to great expense--to create an environment which they hope will incentivize employees to do their best work.

However, many are finding that it's extremely difficult to maintain that environment at scale. They might have a great culture at 100 or 150 employees, but things tend to break down after that.

Why? One reason is obviously feasibility--happy hour Friday can be tough to pull off for 400+ employees. More importantly, companies are discovering that not every employee is energized, inspired or motivated by the same incentives. And, as new employees join the team, the dynamics of the company change based on the unique personalities, experience and perspectives they bring to the table.

Not to mention, the way we work is changing as old rules are being replaced with new norms. Not long ago, employees were afraid to ask for what they want, to speak their mind or challenge the status quo. Doing so might get you fired, even if the request or input was completely legitimate. But now, companies understand the value of authenticity and engagement. They're discovering that asking employees for their input, what they want and what motivates them--and providing those incentives--can keep them engaged and invested in their work and performing at their best.

Why Community Trumps Culture

In order for organizations to thrive as they grow, rather than focusing on maintaining a culture, startups should instead concentrate on building a community. What's the difference? And, why does it matter?

First, a culture is imposed. It's established by the company and employees are expected to be a part of it, to participate, even if it doesn't fit their style or personality. Culture is about the company, and how you as an employee fit within it. It is often not very authentic, purporting to serve the needs of employees, but without anyone ever asking them what they want. It's frequently a carry-over from the founders' interests and the environment they want to work in.

On the other hand, community is the manifestation of the people within it, guided by the company values. A community is constantly evolving as employees come and go, influenced by their individual perspectives, insight and experience. It's authentic, taking into consideration what's meaningful to the individuals, helping to create a sense of purpose in which community members intrinsically hold themselves and one another accountable for the company's success.

A community allows employees to feel a sense of belonging, that they're part of something larger than themselves, which gives meaning to their work, and their lives as a whole. Perhaps most importantly, community is sustainable. It can be segmented and sub-segmented, and still retain its authenticity and effectiveness. While the CEO may not be able to maintain a community of 400, managers and team leaders can guide smaller communities within the larger context, all based on the same philosophies and guiding values.

And, finally, community works. In the 18 months since we've implemented our People Ops community-based philosophy at FiveStars, we've seen our engagement scores rise by 9% to 86% total engagement for our 380 employees scattered across 13 states. This places us 15% above the benchmark for over 150 startups nationwide.

How to Build a Scalable Community

We think the evidence is clear: a successful community drives higher engagement, which drives increased productivity and greater company success at any scale. How did we do it? Here are 7 core components that any company can adopt to establish a strong community that unlocks the potential of every employee.

1. Define company values collaboratively.

Many companies establish core values. But again, just like their culture, those values are most often imposed by management, with little regard to whether employees actually value those same principles. Instead, give employees a voice and ask for their input.

Define values based not only on what your company aspires to, but also what employees value, the impact they want to have on customers and the world, and what they strive for. This not only creates a more powerful sense of commitment and ownership, but it also aids in accountability.

2. Establish expected behaviors.

What do those values look like in practice? Most companies give employees very little guidance when it comes to how those values should manifest in the way they interact with customers or team members, how they're expected to "live" those values through their daily work.

Establish four or five behaviors for each value that explicitly depicts what those values look like in application. And again, it's important to ask for employees' input--what value-driven behaviors do they think should be expected?

3. Adopt radical responsibility.

Just as employees should have ownership of the values and behaviors, they should also have ownership of enforcing them. Empower employees to hold each other unapologetically accountable for their behaviors, and this goes for leaders as well. It's unrealistic for leaders to say, "we own this community, and you need to follow these rules," while not following them themselves.

Give everyone the power to call others out, using the established values and behaviors of the community as the standard.

4. Make onboarding employee-centric.

In most cases, when new employees join an organization, they're indoctrinated. They're told everything they need to know about the company, how it works, policies and procedures, and then they're thrown into the work. That approach offers nothing to the company on how to optimize the employee's performance, which should be the top priority. After all, that's what you're investing in with a new hire--extracting their peak performance.

Instead, set employees up for success by focusing on who they are, their needs and what makes them tick. Ask employees to share stories about the ideal conditions that allow them to do their best work. New hires should write down their strengths, areas for development, how they like to be recognized, their main motivators, etc. Understanding these factors is critical for the success of the employee and the company.

5. Transform managers into coaches.

Rather than merely issuing tasks and deadlines, coaches lead, mentor, support and motivate their team to do their best work. They also work collaboratively and selflessly with individual team members to help them build career plans that offer the satisfaction and sense of purpose that drive longevity, loyalty and success.

6. Make the 1:1 a powerful tool.

As part of the coaching relationship, coaches and employees should meet one-on-one weekly based on the 5-15 method developed by Patagonia's CEO Yvon Chouinard. The 5-minute check-in involves a quick overview of the week's accomplishments, next week's priorities, any challenges or issues, and lessons learned, questions or areas for improvement.

This keeps the meetings brief, yet effective and on-task, and going far beyond the typical, "how are things going?" superficial conversations.

7. Clear obstacles to enable top-notch work.

As a coach, and an organization as a whole, make it a priority to remove roadblocks that prevent your team from doing their best work. Use 1:1s as an opportunity to discuss challenges, obstacles and issues, and do whatever it takes to clear those. Ask for their input and suggestions on how these might be resolved and consistently work together to remove those barriers.

Many organizations say that their greatest asset is their people. However, when they fail to actually put people first, it hinders their success--a failure that becomes increasingly problematic as the organization scales up. Just as your employees are living, breathing and constantly evolving, so too should your organization. Continuing to enforce the established culture on the entire staff or apply the same management style or principles with every individual is a mistake that drives great employees away.

Building an effective community based on authentic relationships, radical responsibility and value-driven behaviors creates a sustainable, growth-oriented environment where employees can perform at their peak, even during rapid growth or challenging times.

Published on: Mar 23, 2017