The One Key to Building and Keeping a Great Company Culture

When you mention the word company culture, the first thing that comes to mind for many are things like: Free lunches, happy hours, Mac Cinema Displays, corporate outings, retreats, and office snacks. These are all great perks that many companies have, but they should not be confused with great company culture.

You can have all those things and still be a miserable, soul-sucking place to work. You can also have none of those things and be a place people love to work.

But if those things aren’t the key to a great company culture, what is?

A mirror.

the one key to great company culture is looking in the mirror

Yes. A mirror.

And what do you do with a mirror? You look at yourself. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Whether you’re defining the culture for your new startup, the head of an organization, or the leader of a small team, you have the ability to set a culture that defines the performance and happiness of you and your colleagues. Remember, as Andy Grove wrote,

As a middle manager, you are in effect a chief executive of an organization yourself… As a micro CEO, you can improve your own and your group’s performance and productivity, whether or not the rest of the company follows suit.”

The One Key to a Great Company Culture

One of the fascinating things about leadership is how people take on the characteristics of those they follow. This means that as a founder especially (but also for any leader) your company culture is you; the good and bad of how you behave and handle situations will be how your team handles the situation.

Do you swear a lot? So will your team.

Do you deflect accountability and blame others? So will your team.

Do you order the expensive items at a company lunch? So will your team.

Do you come in late and leave early? So will your team.

Next time you look at your team and see something in your culture you don’t like, the first thing you should do is look at yourself.

Search for blind spots.

One of the hardest things about leading others is the unintended consequences of your decisions. The higher you are in a growing or large organization, the more often you make decisions with incomplete information.  You also will have a view that’s completely different than others in your company simply because you don’t see what they see in their day to day.

A great example comes from Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc, from the early days at Pixar.  They used to have important meetings in a conference room with a long, narrow table, and they weren’t getting the engagement they were hoping from the meeting.  The problem? The table.

See, Catmull and the other leaders had great, front row, center seats at these meetings, while others were relegated to seating at the far ends of the table or around the edges of the conference room.  While he and the other leaders felt fully included, they had no idea what it felt like to be on the outside.  As Catmull put it:

“When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless… Unwittingly, we were allowing this table to send a different message… The closer you were seated to the middle of the table, it implied, the more important – the more central – you must be. And the farther away, the less likely you were to speak up.”

It was only after they literally threw the table away and got a new, large, square one where all would be equal in their positioning and they eliminated reserved seating for leaders that they got the results they wanted.  Until they took a hard look at where they were seated versus others, they didn’t perceive what they were missing and couldn’t improve the situation for everyone.

Lead by example.

It’s hard to look in the mirror sometimes and acknowledge your weaknesses, but if you want to improve your team you need to.  When you see something you want to change or add to your culture, ask yourself what you can do to exemplify and reinforce that behavior.

Leading by example is a powerful behavior that has been critical to the success of Pixar.  When they realized that their value of candor was not being upheld, they realized it was up to leaders in the company to set the example that candor was both valued and necessary.

“While I attend and participate in almost all Braintrust meetings and enjoy discussing the storytelling, I see my primary role as making sure that the compact upon which the meetings are based is protected and upheld. This part of our job is never done.”

Over and over in Creativity, Inc, Catmull showed how he and other leaders had to diligently work to reinforce the values they wanted. Words were far from enough. It was the actions that mattered and set the tone.

Show humility and accountability.

By taking accountability for your contribution to a value or behavior you want to change in your culture, you demonstrate great humility. This gives others on your team room to also be accountable for their actions. This sets up everyone to police themselves to maintain the new culture you’re working to establish.

As Ben Horowitz wrote about Andrew Mason’s resignation letter as CEO of Groupon:

“Andrew does the stand up thing and claims accountability. Make no mistake though—although he’s the only one accountable, he’s certainly not the only one responsible for all the things that went wrong….But here as in every case, it’s not all the CEO’s doing, but it’s all the CEO’s fault.”

Being accountable starts with you. Ask yourself what you can do differently in every situation you want to improve and you’ll turn the blame game into a safe, collaborative discussion where everyone feels safe to also admit faults and contribute to the solution.

Set and maintain the standard.

One of the toughest balances any leader must handle is the one of speed versus quality. There is always pressure to go faster and there are many demands on your time.  It’s easy to make compromises along the way, which over time will erode the quality of your work and the results your team delivers.

One of the best defenses against a declining standard is being active in exemplifying the quality you expect. Remember: You decide the bottom floor of the quality you will accept by what you reject and give constructive feedback on. You also decide the ceiling for work you will receive by what you praise and how you reinforce it.

There are few companies in the world with higher standards than Pixar and their non-stop string of hit films proves it. Another lesson from co-founder and President, Ed Catmull comes on setting the standard:

“You needed to show your people that you meant it when you said that…more and more I saw that by putting people first – not just saying that we did, but proving that we did by the actions we took – we were protecting the culture.”

If you say something is important, it’s essential you back that up with your actions.  If you’re not sure what your standards are, the first thing you must do is decide what they are, and set them as something you’re willing to work hard to maintain.

Be the company you want to be.

The only way anything has ever changed is by people rolling up their sleeves and doing the work to make it happen.  Whether you already have an excellent culture that you want to maintain as you grow, or  you want to improve the one that exists today, it starts with you.  Think about the changes you want to see and then take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask yourself how you can be part of the solution through your actions.