(Story by Kate MacArthur originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune)
Company culture matters more than ever, as Amazon learned in August when a New York Times article portrayed it as a competitive and painful workplace.
Laura Hamill is an organizational psychologist and chief people officer at Bellevue, Wash.-based employee-engagement platform Limeade. She says companies need to build an intentional workplace culture that’s aligned with business strategy. She explains how to do that and what companies get wrong in setting and maintaining culture.
Q. How do you intentionally build a culture?
A. It’s about creating a culture that’s aligned with what you’re trying to achieve as a business. That’s where we usually start. What do we stand for as a company?
For entrepreneurs and startups, when you’re first starting — maybe even when it’s just you alone — it’s critical to think about what really matters in this organization. Whatever you’re trying to do from a strategy perspective, work backward from that and think about what needs to be in place for us to be able to do that.
For example, if your company is trying to develop a new collaboration software, think about how important it would be that the daily norms and values were aligned and that the employees were collaborating instead of competing with each other to create that software.
Q. What do companies get wrong in building and maintaining a culture?
A. They just have their values on their website or on the walls of the office, but they don’t really talk about what it means. Culture is a benefit that you can offer your current or future employees.
Culture is not a Ping-Pong table. Culture is not having margaritas on Friday. That’s just surface level. What matters a lot more is what happens when people go back to their desk, when they have a meeting with their manager and interact with the leaders of company. It’s day-to-day interactions, how people feel they are treated, and how they’re valued.
It’s hard leadership work to define those things we stand for, then creating a bit of a shared vision. One of the next steps that a lot of companies skip is putting it into really simple behavioral terms that everybody can understand.
Also just carving out time to educate people about it, to spend time getting feedback on doing things we say we stand for. There’s a bit of education and time spent and being accountable that’s really important to the whole thing. It’s important to make it real for employees in different ways over time.
Q. When the founder is the company, can you separate yourself from the culture, and how soon should you set the culture?
A. It’s very hard for founders to take a step back and observe themselves in it. I think there inherently will be aspects of the leader’s personality that come forward in the culture. There’s also a huge likelihood that when they’re making the first couple of hires, they’re going to hire people that are like them in some way, shape or form.
It’s being really aware of that and thinking about that. Certainly there are upsides, but what are the downsides of hiring people who are similar to us? Let’s be really thoughtful of that tendency we have.
It’s almost never too early to start putting what our most important cultural values or what we want to stand for down on paper, even if it’s a one-person startup.
Q. What are some ways your company follows its own advice?
A. We already had the values in place from the beginning. When I first started, I worked with employees, managers and leaders to put into simple, behavioral terms what we mean by each of our values.
From that, we developed a custom interview guide that we use in hiring that got to those behaviors. We also put in a performance review with two things we consider equally. The first is what you do to you accomplish your goals. But the other thing that is 50 percent of their overall performance is whether or not they’re demonstrating the culture. We call that the “what and the how.”