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.

 

Introducing Founder Connect

“Honestly, I’m petrified I’m gonna fuck it all up. Please tell me that other people you work with feel this way too.”

 

That was the start of my first conversation with one of the founders I work with. She had reached out to me at a point when her new Head of Product had abruptly left after just three months, her team had tripled in size in two years and churn was crushing her bottom line. She was overwhelmed, to put it lightly.

 

Every founder I’ve worked with has shared a version of this sentiment with me during our work together. They want to know that they’re not the only one who feels this way.

 

Life as a founder can be lonely: The stakes are high and the future is often unknown. 

 

And while I assure them all that they are, in fact, in very good company, that reassurance helps only a little.

 

Surprisingly (or, maybe not surprisingly), the endless amounts of content streaming into our inboxes, sharing battle stories of “failures”, adds little reassurance. That’s because “failure” in the startup world is celebrated in the abstract, usually by someone who is now wildly successful. It’s  become such a buzzword that founders who are in the trenches can no longer relate. They’re in the middle of it, living the gritty reality of sleepless nights, wild swings between the highest highs and deep self-doubt, and precarious finances.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the contrast between what we read and listen to and what real people experience. Why is it that we only show the sunny side of hard stuff? Why do we talk about the battle only after it’s won? 

 

As an executive coach with a background in Psychology, I know all the textbook reasons why people don’t talk about the tough stuff when they’re in it. It’s hard enough on our ego and emotional bandwidth to be going through it, never mind narrating it for other people. Our psyche does whatever it can to protect ourselves from feeling any more harm than necessary.

 

Ironically, this self-protectionism can lead us to feel further alone. What’s more, it can affect how you show up with your team and the people you care most about. It messes with your sleep habits. And it destroys your ability to make good decisions.

 

But,  when that paradigm changes, the result is nothing short of magical.

 

Then I came across this conversation between Oprah and Michelle Obama, where they discussed the power of connecting to the “humanness” of our shared experiences. Michelle commented, “We gravitate to one another when we share the best and the worst of ourselves”.

 

“Exactly” I thought.

 

What we lack right now in the startup community is a shared experience. 

 

But what does that look like? 

 

Think for a minute about a time when you connected- I mean, really connected, with someone about something that you both had in common. On a topic that was really important to you, that you were hugely passionate about. (Hopefully, you’ve had at least a few opportunities to do this with your business. If so, think of one of those examples for this!).

 

Did that experience or conversation give you new energy to tackle something in a different or better way? Did something that previously felt impossible suddenly feel totally possible? 

 

That’s the power of real connection. 

 

So, I’m creating the Founder Connect project to find the answers to the questions that all of my founders are asking–and for all of you out there who wish you could hear from real people who are battling the same real shit that you’re going through.

 

I’ll be interviewing courageous founders who want to pay it forward and share their wisdom about their proudest moments, lowest points and biggest lessons learned–while they’re in the midst of learning them.

 

My goal is to explore whether founders face specific common challenges, and what tools and resources they’ve used to respond to them. I’ll ask about the advice they wish they had gotten along the way, and advice they’d share with other founders who are just starting out. By shedding light on individuals’ stories, it is possible to create a more human experience for founders going through their startup journey.

 

So, here’s my ask: If you’re a founder (or know one who would be great for this project) who’s willing to be real about your personal startup experience, please contact me.  My only asks (in addition to your candor) are that you’ve been in business for more than three years and have more than three members on your team.

 

And, stay tuned. I’ll be sharing Founder Connect observations and insights along the way, and report my complete findings at the end.