There are a few obvious things people look for in a company culture. We all want to be where people are treated well, where leadership cares, and where the benefits are terrific. At the same time, most people agree that mistreating workers, lying, stealing, and cheating are sure signs of a bad culture.
But there's more to culture than these broad outlines, and that's where most companies and workers run into trouble. Once the fundamentals are covered--such as decent pay, safe conditions, and clear expectations--I think great culture comes down to values and fit. What's perfect for one person can be terrible for someone else, so it's important for people on both sides of the hiring line to discuss expectations.
The Right Fit Is Key
Consider these hypotheticals:
Company A was started by ex-athletes who value competition, and the culture emphasizes driving employees to their limits. Everything is measured, so people know where they stand in relation to their peers. Company events are intense and push people outside their comfort zones. Each year, the bottom 20 percent of performers are asked to leave, and the top 20 percent get the lion's share of the bonus pool. People at Company A love being challenged and accept the consequences when they don't meet expectations. The company is a leader in its field, and its products are always innovative. People work long hours, but they love it. Growth has ranged from 30 percent to 40 percent a year.
Company B is a family business that has endured for 100 years. Leaders there value loyalty, tenure, consistency and reliability. Company events focus on teamwork and connecting to the community. Clients value Company B because they know what to expect, and they trust the people. As a result, the company has a loyal base of clients. Many employees have worked there for more than 10 years. Growth has been between 5 percent and 10 percent a year for 20 years, never higher and never lower.
These are both great companies and cultures--for the right people. It's highly doubtful that an employee from Company A would find Company B a great culture to work in or vice versa. That's why it's so critical for company founders to identify early on what culture attributes they want to emphasize and reward in their businesses. This begins by looking inward.
Culture Isn't Always Organic
It's easier than you think; you just need to put your mind to it. Everything you really want from a great culture is wrapped up in a pretty simple formula: vision + values + plans and targets.
Vision: Where are your company's goals? Why are you in this particular business, and what do you ultimately hope to accomplish?
Values: More than pretty words on the wall, values need to reflect what really makes your company different. What is the DNA of someone who would work well there? Core values aren't mere platitudes, such as "People are our most important asset." They reflect a point of view, such as "Competition drives improvement."
Plans and targets: As a leader, you need to know not only where your business is going but how to get there. If you communicate your objectives clearly, your team members will know the score and how to contribute.
Each of the above elements is supported by clarity and consistency, meaning the company does what it says and says what it does. In my experience, the companies that frustrate people the most provide mixed messages. When someone realizes he signed up for the wrong team, he'll likely leave on his own. When a company tells someone one thing and acts another way, that person will get frustrated and angry.
Employees Who Retain Company Values
As an example, at Acceleration Partners, one of our core values is "Own it," which reflects our belief that team members are always responsible for their actions and look inward not outward when there are issues or mistake. What's interesting is that we've found that some candidates who initially seem to admire that value eventually discover that as employees they don't enjoy the level of accountability that comes with it; it's not really who they are. Keeping true to our core values can therefore require some hard choices.
Which just goes to show that there is some real work involved in creating a great culture. It doesn't just happen. Companies and leaders have to be clear about who they are and where they are going. You need to attract your tribe--people who believe in your mission and all you stand for.
A company that tries to be everything to everyone will end up meaning nothing to those who matter most.