How do you get great results from your employees while still creating an environment where people truly want to work — and thrive?

This is a such a difficult question. And one that I think about a lot. I’d be willing to bet a lot of CEOs and business owners ask themselves this very question every day.

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How important is company culture to you?

Think about this question for a minute. If your answer is “it’s not the most important thing,” I’d argue that you aren’t setting your company up for success. I would go even further and suggest that company culture is the very foundation of everything you are attempting to build. Employee retention is a big goal for me as a business owner. We invest a ton of time and money in our employees (see: benefits, 401K plans, profit sharing, training, mentoring, conferences, etc). Why would we want to throw all of that time and effort away every six months?

Most successful companies have a common theme regarding culture. Everyone on board understands where the company is going and how it intends to get there. Why? Likely because, in some way, you have espoused your core values to your staff. And they have bought into the company’s purpose. And the reason these great employees are confidently on board is because they have experienced a place where everyone, especially the leadership, is living the stated values and purpose.

Company culture should almost be tangible. When a new employee is onboarded, they should already have a sense of the culture — even before they have started to live it. All new employees should have a reference point to help them make decisions, even when a manager is not available to help them. It should be reflected in everything they do and everything they produce. Culture is a way of thinking. This way of thinking should translate into doing.

Everyone in your company should know, understand and believe in your core values. If they don’t, you really should reevaluate their role in your company. Everyone should know what they are signing up for before becoming part of the team. That said, you can’t put a sign on a wall and point to it and say, “this is our culture” (not that it hurts for people to see your core values, mind you). Your culture should be so embedded in your workforce’s psyche that they feel empowered to make decisions based on the core values. And you should be able to trust that your employees will know the right thing to do when faced with a difficult situation or an ethical dilemma.

photo credit: The European Pirate Summit 2013 Day 1- heisenbergmedia.com via photopin (license)

How do we define culture at stable|kernel?

There are a number of ways…

  • We are transparent at stable|kernel. This is non-negotiable. As soon as an employee feels like they can’t trust you (for whatever reason), it’s almost impossible to get them back on board. Be upfront. And be honest. A company that hides information, or leaves pieces of information out, is not a great place to work.
  • We treat everyone with respect at stable|kernel. This is important because a great idea can come from anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it is directly from the CEO — or the engineer doing a summer internship. Never discount the source of an idea. And remember the golden rule; unless someone has shown you disrespect, you should always treat people as you would expect to be treated as well.
  • We practice empathy on a daily basis at stable|kernel. This involves listening which, in my opinion, is a lost art. I spend much of my time and effort learning how to understand the people around me. I’m no expert, but I do know this translates into more rewarding results. For instance, you’ll likely better understand the needs of your customers. It also helps you deal with negativity around you in a more positive, resolute way because you can better understand your employees’ fears and motivations.
  • We empower our employees at stable|kernel. There is no micro-management at stable|kernel. We hire well and trust that our employees can do their job. And by empowering our employees, we have removed the barrier of Big Brother.
  • We don’t care about silly things at stable|kernel. Culture can’t be bought. We do have a dartboard and some of our most productive work sessions occur during our games of cricket. However, culture isn’t defined by frivolous toys. Scooters, sliding boards, phone booths and high-end espresso machines may have their place in an office space, but they are not the foundation of your culture — or why people choose to be there. I’m not saying they are mutually exclusive; they may be a benefit. But you certainly shouldn’t point to these things as the definition of your culture.

Remember the NPR project called “This I Believe”? It ran for about four years, from 2005 to 2009. “This I Believe” took listeners through a discussion of the core beliefs that guided their daily lives. It was a fascinating series.

Since this post is about culture, and at the urging of a good friend, I wanted to start my own “This I Believe: Work Edition” manifesto. This same friend (who wanted to contribute to this piece but remain anonymous) helped me put together a really powerful list of 20 “This I Believes” that should apply to every workplace:

  • I believe it’s important to know what matters most to you
  • I believe integrity should be your muse
  • I believe hard, meaningful work is its own reward
  • I believe kindness has a clear definition
  • I believe precise mission and vision statements are essential
  • I believe relationships matter
  • I believe the people around you know more about some things than you do
  • I believe the people around you want to share what they know
  • I believe in listening
  • I believe people who have strong, long-term relationships outside of the workplace are the best leaders. And the best employees.
  • I believe in earned second chances
  • I believe in truth-telling
  • I believe leaders need to be courageous
  • I believe in the power of “thank you”
  • I believe in asking questions so you can formulate the best answers
  • I believe the most important messages shouldn’t be read
  • I believe in clarity
  • I believe clients and coworkers should be treated the same way
  • I believe in collaboration
  • I believe the right people will always look for good reasons to stay
Jason Russell

Managing Partner at Stable Kernel

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