Great Company Cultures Are Made, Not Bought.

A new founder was venting to me recently that she can’t afford an impressive office space for her growing team. As a result, she lamented, her company’s culture was clearly going to suffer. 

 

It’s easy to see why she’d think that.

 

After all, the internet is filled with stories that equate a strong culture with “things”: laser tag outings, wine tastings, flashy retreats– and yes, award-winning office spaces.  

 

Good news, I replied. Your culture has nothing to do with your office space.

 

What Really Matters

In contrast, I described what really matters– like Core Values that mean something, or the way the team behaves when a mistake is made. But I could see that she struggled to fully connect with my explanation. 

 

Searching for a fitting analogy, I told her about a trail hike I’d recently taken. 

 


 

It was a quiet, sunny August morning, and I was hiking the trails of Block Island. When I rounded a bend, I came upon this tree: majestic and wild, with the sun glowing from behind. 

 

 

I paused in my tracks, captivated by its mystical beauty. And then I imagined how strong its roots must be, to keep its tangle of branches anchored to the earth. 

 

Your company is like that tree, I explained. And your company’s culture are the roots

 

Like a tree’s, your company’s roots are mostly invisible to the naked eye, but contain the substance and energy that feeds your company. They need to be strong and run deep in order for your team to thrive as it grows. 

 

Grow Strong Roots

Your company’s roots become stronger when you:

 

  • Know- and act in alignment with- your company’s Core Values. This means hiring people who share your values, and making tough decisions that keep you in line with your values.
  • Reward behavior that strengthens trust, collaboration and psychological safety– and avoid acting in ways that weaken or destroy it. 
  • Listen to- and act upon- what your employees tell you they need. Are your benefits too basic? Do they feel it’s too hard to get things done? Probe for what really matters.
  • Commit to continually improving- as a founder and as a company. Rather than being a sign of weakness, treating yourself and your company as a work in progress encourages people to be more open and creative.

 

If you’re still unclear about how to cultivate your culture, let these two questions lead you: 

 

Is what you’re doing nourishing your company? 

 

Will it help keep your company anchored for the unexpected setback? 

 

Here’s what a great company culture sounds like

We’ve all heard the glossy stories of companies that are celebrated for their impressive company culture. But here’s a well-kept secret: some of the best cultures can be found in places that you may have never heard of. 

 

These lesser-known startups aren’t focusing on their culture for the viral success story. They simply know who they are and they build around what they value. 

 

Since every company has unique Core Values, there’s no one right way to foster identity. Which means that external validation is a pretty meaningless barometer for creating the environment that your people can thrive in. A far better indicator is what your employees say about working there.

 

In fact, you can find the answer in the very words your employees use.

 

I recently spoke with several engaged employees who described what it’s like to work at their company. This is what it sounds like when you’re part of a culture with a lot of constructive and creative energy:

 

“There’s space for everyone to have a voice.”

“Everyone is true to themselves and the work we’re doing.”

“We can rely on and understand each other.”

“I’m emotionally attached to this business.”

“I’ve been in the trenches with this company and this company has been in the trenches with me.”

“I can be who I am; I don’t need to be a character.”

“I have the freedom to try new things, be creative; I’m encouraged to ‘be more me.’”

“This company has taught me that you can actually not burn out at a job- not feel like your entire life is being sucked out of you.” 

 

When people are respected and accepted, they focus on their work, rather than worrying about how others will react. They’re curious and love learning new things. They share their opinions. They act intentionally and seek outcomes where all win.

 

As a result, the team has a broad and rich understanding about their priorities. And people tend to feel deeply connected to their work and their company.

To better understand your team’s engagement, listen to the words they use. Get the conversation started by meeting with each of your employees and asking them thoughtful, open-ended questions. You’ll quickly learn what does versus doesn’t matter to your people and your culture.