Having a great company culture matters a lot to me and to my team at Acceleration Partners (AP). We have spent years developing a culture that both supports employees and helps us deliver value to customers; along the line we have built a great reputation.

Glassdoor, a website that features anonymous employee reviews, has given us several awards, including Number 4 Best Place to Work and Number 2 CEO in the US Small Business category. That's why I was a bit taken aback earlier this year when a past employee posted a negative review on the site, commenting both on what it was like to work at the company and taking my leadership to task.

Based on the specific nature of the comments, I was able to check my exit interview notes and determine the review likely came from someone who left the company almost four years ago, when we were about a third the size we are now and a very different business. Since this employee was a top performer and well-liked by both peers and management, it was not someone I would have expected to be carrying around such negative feelings years later.   

This is one of the reasons the feedback was valuable, and I have learned several important lessons from this experience.

1. Feedback is a gift.

No one is above reproach. It's not always easy to hear criticism, but giving and accepting direct, candid feedback is essential to growth and improvement--both for individual team members and for the company. This is as true for me as for anyone else.

While I was initially upset and frustrated by the comments, I have since realized that everyone is entitled to a point of view. I have a very different interpretation of most of the circumstances the employee described, but the employee's feelings are still valid. 

On the plus side, I was happy to see that most of the changes this person suggested were ones we made long ago--revealing that we have been successful at taking feedback and learning from our mistakes.

2. Leaders must meet higher standards.

Leaders and especially CEOs have to remember that their words have different and greater impact than the same statements coming from a peer. Sadly, leaders really can't joke or banter in the same way they might have as just another member of the team.

I've seen this phenomenon when I talk to employees about a new opportunity or idea. Often, they act as if I have given them a "to do" item, when all I was looking for was casual brainstorming. Unfortunately, those of us who want to be vulnerable and authentic leaders can't always be as open and spontaneous as we might like; we have to try to anticipate how others will react. It's a very delicate balancing act.

3. It's important to stick to your values.

One thing I have learned over the years is that while feedback is critical, it's also important not to overreact. I have gotten more comfortable internalizing the fact that we can't and should not be everything to everyone.  For example, one of our company's core values is "Own It," and we have found over the years that employees who do not want to be held to the standards we have established for that value will probably be uncomfortable. Ours is not a culture of looking outward for blame and accountability, we ask people to look inward; that's just not for everyone.

In this case, this past employee's main issues related to the vision and culture we've established at AP; the person wanted to be able to opt out of certain elements--such as our company retreats, which are consistently voted one of the top reasons people love working here.

This is an area where I really can't compromise.

A great culture is one that does what it says and lives its values consistently; that does not mean it's a fit for everyone. Values can't come in an á la carte menu.

At AP, our goal is to be transparent, consistent and authentic about who we are and what we value. If an employee doesn't agree with central aspects of a company's culture--as was likely the case here--that company is honesty not the best place for that person to work.

In the end, no company is going to be great for everyone, but I'm glad I took the time to reflect on this feedback. While I'm sure to make many more mistakes as a leader, it's always instructive to consider how to communicate better and accommodate differences while keeping true to your values and your vision. 

Published on: Dec 10, 2018
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