Company culture comprises the beliefs and behaviors of an organization, and there are different types. A successful culture improves the quality of employees’ working lives, affects turnover rate, and boosts productivity. If you’ve ever heard “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” that’s why.
Culture eats strategy for breakfastPeter Drucker
There are many ways to positively impact your culture, but – pardon the marketing cliché – one size definitely does not fit all. However, despite some different approaches, there are commonalities, including a major one: people. How an organization treats, considers, and supports its people is at the core of most (if not all) of these examples when it comes to establishing and maintaining strong and lasting culture.
This handpicked (and by no means exhaustive) list highlights the genuine, consistent, and sometimes unique methods some organizations use to establish and nurture their working cultures. If you’re looking for inspiration, here it is.
The video conferencing technology company (a platform for video and audio conferencing, collaboration, chat, and webinars) is certainly a mainstay on the “big lists” for its culture, and for good reason: their focus on people. The company has a reputation for caring about its people on a deep, personal basis. For example, Zoom encourages employees to bring loved ones to work so teammates and colleagues can meet the people behind the scenes of their working lives, the people they’re inspired by, and who they’re working for.
CEO Eric Yuan describes the Zoom mission this way: deliver happiness. The company even has a “happiness crew.” Zoom’s happiness crew focuses on – you guessed it – what it takes to maintain a sense of happiness in the culture as the company grows. Volunteer opportunities, training sessions, mentorship pairing, consistent recognition opportunities – all these things are secondary to the main question: what will make you happy?
On a special note, Zoom made headlines for its generosity during a time of crisis. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom announced free licenses of Zoom for K-12 educators. It was a forward-thinking and community-minded act during a time of need, and one that would make life harder for the Zoom team. But it was the right thing to do.
Zoom’s cultural values shined through in this action. It was a source of pride to those within the organization, and something those without could admire. The takeaway: if you can give something back for free, do it.
When it comes to Patagonia, it’s hard to know where to begin. They seem to be in the vanguard of every cultural flashpoint and movement, taking the bold stances rarely seen from companies with influence and prestige.
We’re in business to save the planet.Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia founder
It’s the theme of Patagonia’s business practices, like its responsible sourcing and progressive business practices, and it pervades the culture. When a company demonstrates, in a very public way, that profits, tax breaks, and the bottom line aren’t always top of mind, the result is a steely loyalty – from employees and customers alike – creating a virtuous circle.
Patagonia’s core values, like doing as little harm to the environment as possible and always taking the long-term view, aren’t just expressed but practiced at Patagonia. The talk, in other words, is walked. That goes a long way with people. Not to mention the fact that they’ve always offered certain benefits, long before current trends. Things like flexible working hours (i.e. the famous “Let my people go surfing”), good work-life balance, and time off to pursue passion projects have all been standard for years. What’s the secret? Support your people, and give them something to believe in.
True to form, Patagonia was one of the first companies to protect its employees (and the general public) from the COVID-19 pandemic by quick store closures and the suspension of all operations. Even better: they announced that they would pay all Patagonia employees during the closures.
Here again: just the right thing to do.
D4D is our #1 secret weapon at Intuit. There is no #2.Scott Cook, Founder
D4D – Design for delight – is, like so many things, powerful because of its simplicity. Three words, alliterative. The phrase itself conveys the concept, and the three principles that make it up – deep customer empathy, go broad to go narrow, rapid experiments with customers – apply equally to who they are as to what they do. That is, D4D encompasses the company culture as much as it defines the way the organization operates.
Wouldn’t we all be so lucky to have arrived at such an elegant description for allthethings?
If there’s a big takeaway here – really, there are many– it’s that consistency throughout the organization sets the stage for winning culture. That is to say, if the principles for how you treat your customers is the same as how you treat one another, that’s a recipe for success. Said another way: “delight” should apply to employees and customers alike. You want some employee delight? There are countless company pages listing benefits and perks, but none rival this page from Intuit.
Your organization is about what’s inside and outside your walls. Align those two things with a simple, equally applicable philosophy? You win.
Here’s a pick that’s no stranger to best-of lists. In fact, the marketing, sales, and service software company is numero uno on this best places to work list. And the reason is simple: Hubspot company culture is all about people. Are you starting to see the trend?
There’s an intriguing line in the Hubspot mission statement that offers some insight into why their culture is so solid. “We believe businesses can grow with a conscience, and succeed with a soul.” That might sound like a recipe for a corporate b.s. sandwich, something “companies like to say.” But it’s not mere lip service in Hubspot’s case. It’s widely apparent that the organization does approach what they do with this mentality top of mind, and with a specific emphasis on making sure people feel valued.
One way they do this is their “no door policy.” It means that everyone in the organization has equal access to everyone else, and all opinions are welcomed no matter where one sits within the organization. It’s hard to imagine a simpler or better way to transform culture, an approach that says: You matter, and we’re all in this together. The impact of Hubspot’s cultural beliefs and practices shows up elsewhere: the consistent quality of their work.
What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Mailchimp? For me, that’s easy: clever. The all-in-one marketing platform for small business never ceases to thrill. But not just with its consistent creativity, but with simplicity and intelligence. How do they do it? By creating a place for creatives.
Here’s the thing: the most important elements of company culture aren’t benefits or perks. These things play a role, but they only work in combination with real support and belief in your people. And for Mailchimp, that means people who are, well, weird?
“So later in life, I start my company and that’s how I run it. I only hire weirdos, basically, and I just let them fail all the time. It just makes perfect sense to me.”Ben Chestnut, CEO and co-Founder
To be clear, weirdos in this sense can be substituted for “creatives.” In other words, people willing to try new things, take risks, and wander off the beaten path in support of better ideas. Mailchimp wants to support and nurture this creative culture, and actively works to make sure they stay “weird,” as it were, especially as the company grows. Ways they do this: the development of Mailchimp University, and the creation of a Chief Culture Officer post. And they take other steps to strengthen – not just maintain – the creative culture they want, like new hire ambassadors for the “chimpanion program.” You want creative culture? Be creative!
Our number one priority is company culture. Our whole belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO
Yes, Zappos’ great culture is well established now, and well known for it. But Hsieh’s quote is how they got there. To keep it going, they focus on hiring. The selection process is designed to find people who resonate with the company ethos. That is, they look for individuals who truly share the “Powered by service” mentality, the motto that catapulted Zappos to the top of the industry. And they double down on this by putting extensive effort into employee team building and culture promotion. They want the company values to percolate in every employee. And it does. Zappos employees are happy, and customers feel it.
Today, Zappos is as famous for its work culture as its shoes. But the attitude of service-mindedness has been so successful and so many other companies have emulated it, it’s hard to remember that at one time it was an industry-changing, stand-out technique. Zappos told their employees to do whatever it took, and in the old world of customer service that was simply unheard of. Happy employees, happy customers? Yes.
Ever wonder how they do it? Me too.
How can a company remain so consistently creative and, well, just plain outstanding? It’s creativity baked right in. It’s creativity in everything. And it’s acknowledging and supporting the creativity of everyone around you. The animation studio has basic principles that permeate the entire culture. Things like the idea that “innovation demands the ability to live with ambiguity” (a beautiful acknowledgement of the creative process) and “passionate innovative leaders make my job fun” and “creative ideas come from collaborations.”
In a nutshell, if you aspire to creativity, be creative in everything you do. This shows up everywhere at Pixar, including in the construction of its “cubicles,” which are often shaped like huts and are tricked out to rival some apartments.
There are other specific approaches that Pixar uses to create its culture that you can try, too. A particularly interesting one to note: regularly share unfinished work. This practice serves several purposes: it invites feedback and collaboration, it displays work and talent (and shows a willingness to be vulnerable), and it moves the process forward. In other words, creative culture isn’t just about individual creativity. It’s working together creatively, too.
When Costco was just getting established, their offerings and practices raised eyebrows everywhere. Their four “operational choices”: offer less, standardize and empower, cross-train, and operate with slack, were pretty radical. But it doesn’t seem so radical today.
Vision is how it was done, and how Costco still approaches all aspects of the organization – and of course that applies equally to culture, which they view like this: Culture isn’t the most important thing — it’s the only thing.
And today employees say things like:
I love the fact that while I’m at work, I don’t feel like I’m working. Most of my colleagues are having fun doing what they do every day, which makes for an extremely happy work atmosphere.Costco employee
They do it by looking at things from the viewpoint of customers (or members). They understand that if they develop a culture that ensures a good experience, and offer amazing return policies, great prices, and high wages and good benefits, the organization will thrive.
“Seventy cents of every dollar spent by Costco goes to employee wages,” says founder James Sinegal in this article. “The company has a 7 percent turnover rate, compared to 60 to 70 percent at other retailers.” Just another example of the special sauce: do right by employees and customers alike.
In this era of weariness toward social media, how is it that LinkedIn remains essentially unscathed by the typical scorn? Certainly, at least part of the reason is culture.
More, it’s their understanding of what their culture is about, and who it’s for. LinkedIn is included in this Glassdoor 2020 Best Places to Work list, but what isn’t perhaps highlighted enough are two things: commitment to people (there it is again) and focus on five principles – Transformation, Integrity, Collaboration, Humor, and Results.
Re: “transformation,” LinkedIn makes clear this means both professionally and personally. The first of their “pillars,” then, is employee health and wellbeing – for both sides of the house, if you will. In other words, LinkedIn takes pains to ensure their employees are growing and thriving in all aspects of their lives, at home and at the office. And when you think of it, shouldn’t this be, I don’t know, sort’ve standard practice? If your employees are happier, and growing, and feeling supported by the organization… doesn’t that make them better employees? Better employees, better company, better better… better!
10. Culture Amp
Culture Amp, the people and culture platform, is a natural choice for guidance on the latest approaches to company culture. Their main philosophy: build a Culture First organization. It takes some doing, but it’s well worth it. Moreover, it must come from a genuine desire. Culture should never be something for show, that only exists while the CEO is watching, or just to attract top-tier hires.
To Culture Amp, culture is about performance, not perks. They view culture as a lever to drive performance, and “Culture First” is a way for their organization (and others) to influence the bottom line. Rather than shy away from such a “crass” way of putting it – bottom-line thinking with respect to company culture? – they lean into it. And why not? It only stands to reason that one would influence the other. Plus, Culture Amp has found that culture is indeed a leading indicator for almost every performance metric. “A Culture First company recognizes that if you take care of the culture, then the customer experience and profits will take care of themselves,” says Founder and CEO Didier Elzinga.
A Culture First company recognizes that if you take care of the culture, then the customer experience and profits will take care of themselves.Didier Elzinga
Culture Amp’s people are empowered to work independently and make decisions that are driven by the core values and culture. Companies that put what’s right for the customer before profits, and prove that that’s imbued in their culture, see it reflected in their bank accounts. In other words, culture is good for the bottom line, not something (as some believe) just to appease employees or merely for optics.
Spotify has several unique strategies for creating its products and organizing its teams. You may have heard that Spotify doesn’t operate in the traditional corporate structure. They have “squads,” “tribes,” and “guilds,” which function as different ways of organizing and performing work with more accountability and autonomy.
But there’s more to it. Through guilds, different team members are connected by communities of interest, such as photography or a particular coding language. These groups cut across the organization independently of the role or project, and allow for people to connect on a variety of different interests. Spotify prides itself on creating the best social experiences for a wide range of employees and fostering inclusion through those practices.
They even have a dedicated social team within HR, focused entirely on creating social events for employees. The idea is to bring folks together in casual settings. They try to offer something for everyone – a wide variety of events and experiences for different tastes and preferences. Having engaging events supports a core value of fostering collaboration through these communities of interest, and understanding its people. Spotify knows that communities are not only formed around work, but also our collective passions.
Wistia, makers of marketing software, video series, and educational content, has a knack for putting their mission “anyone can use video to grow their business and their brand” into everything they do. And by putting it in, I mean: with creativity. It’s palpable. It’s ever-present. Their customer-first content and overall approach to business stand out with care and smarts in everything they release.
But they fully acknowledge that being creative – and developing and supporting the culture that supports creativity – is a major endeavor. Investing in creativity isn’t just a money problem, for instance. They fall back on some important principles:
- Hire like you mean it. Take risks on your people , especially when it comes to hiring.
- Creativity has cultural needs. Every team at your company has different needs in order to produce their best work.
- Foster creativity in all departments. If you only expect a small portion of your business to be creative, then you’re missing out on a whole lot of opportunities. How do you foster a sense of creativity across the business?
- Encourage outside projects
- Let go, but also ask the right kinds of questions
- Be careful how you measure
- Pretend it’s not your company
On this last point, note what Founder and CEO Chris Savage says: “It’s easier to take a risk when you don’t think of it as your own. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking ourselves, “What would ‘X’ company do?” Creativity requires creative thinking, just like this.
13. Clif Bar & Company
What really stands out about this unique company is how far it is from being “just an energy bar” company. Clif Bar & Company has been on the forefront of sustainability issues and fair trade and a host of environmental concerns for decades. And the reason is simple: it was always part of the culture, always part of a mandate and the mission.
A look at their culture page tells the story. It’s filled with the initiatives and projects, both personal and company-focused, of people across the organization. It’s unlike those you’ll see elsewhere.
What Clif Bar & Company seem to have figured out way before it was “in vogue” is that companies are communities. If you invest in your community, it will not only thrive but propel the organization forward. As mentioned above, culture is organic. And so are organizations. Change is always present. The best way to approach change is head-on, and the best protection when doing it is a rock solid company culture that inspires people to believe in the company, to champion it, not simply as an outside entity, something apart from them, but a part of them.
And really, isn’t this how we’d all like to feel about the organizations within which we work and spend so much of our lives?
14. Trader Joe’s
Trader Joe’s was at the forefront of “doing what’s right” for its employees and customers. They do the right thing… because it’s the right thing to do. (Have I said that before?) They empower their “crew” (employees, teammates) and put them at the center of the organization because they believe in them and want to build them up, support them, and give them opportunities to succeed. That… is the right thing to do.
Trader Joe’s believes in a premise, often forgotten: an organization is simply a collection of individuals working towards a common purpose. The culture stays top of mind for everyone because their seven core values – 1) Integrity, 2) Product driven, 3) Create a WOW customer experience every day, 4) No bureaucracy, 5) National chain of neighborhood grocery stores, 6) Kaizen (a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices, personal efficiency, etc.), and 7) The store is our brand – are understood, referenced, and believed in by all.
If you were looking to model core values, you’d be hard-pressed to find better ones than Trader Joe’s. And a final note about Kaizen. Dan Bane, Trader Joe’s Chairman and CEO explains: “For us, that [Kaizen] means, everybody in the company owes everybody else a better job every day, every year in what they do. Because of that, we don’t really do budgeting. We just expect our stores to do a little bit better every year. They [the crew] create their own targets.” Talk about radical, anti-bottom-line-only thinking!
Buffer, the social media marketing company, is a fully distributed team. Though in recent years that distinction is becoming less unique, the main challenge for such a company always remains the same: how do you create company culture when everyone’s everywhere else?
The short answer is: it takes effort. But there are ways to do it, and do it well, and Buffer has been a leader in establishing methods for creating great culture, even when employees are spread across time zones and geos and rarely (if ever) get together in person.
The main method: a tool like Slack to take the place of the workplace. For all-remote companies, and for teams working remote for other reasons, this “replacement workplace” is indispensable. Buffer uses Slack for everything from its important team conversations to a virtual “water cooler,” and find it’s essential for establishing and maintaining their strong remote – and overall company – culture.
“Focusing on your company culture and values allows you to build a great company,” says Buffer Co-founder and COO Leo Widrich. “It allows you to stop operating by policy and start operating by principle.”
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