Chapter 11: Develop a Culture Worth Joining -
Tomorrow Toolkit for Entrepreneurs
Develop a Culture Worth Joining By Lindsay Podraza
You need to think early and often about making a work environment that is a real community of strength. Think about how to attract team members, who are challenging, diverse and committed.

Defining your company culture by having a foosball table in the office has become a bad trope. Gourmet dining and nap rooms are symptoms of culture at best, or shortcuts for it at worst, not culture itself.

What we do know is that if you want to build a company that lasts in today’s environment, in which savvy technologists and other knowledge workers have options and can sense traps, you need a company culture people want to be a part of and support.

Robert Herrera is a Delaware architect, an influencer of the early WeWork coworking model and the founder of the Mill coworking space in Wilmington. He thinks a lot about how people interact with each other. Herrera remembers a time when he was tasked with managing a large team with dozens of outside engineers and consultants. He was too green for the job and hadn’t figured out how to lead well.

“The team culture was miserable, and the results reflected that,” he said. There was conflict because they lacked a clear, shared sense of mission and set of values. “I failed epically, but it was one of the best learning experiences of my life. What I took away from it was that a confident leader understands that all solutions and ideas do not have to be their own.”

Greg Shelton, a veteran of banking upstart ING Direct, famed for its internal culture, and now chief marketing officer at Digital-Vikings, a mobile tech consultancy, has seen team dynamics at large and small scale. When you expand your company — whether by two or 20 people — look for leaders. “You have to make sure it’s a team that’s not a lot of followers,” he said. Shelton also advised being open-minded enough to hire people who bring different perspectives to the team.

It’s natural for a company to reflect its founder or owner. But as the company grows, it’s important to remember that everyone needs a role in the vision, said Greg Scandone of AcuFocus, a fast growing company in Philadelphia’s medical technology field.

“I think you have to allow other people to have impact and decisions inside the organization. I think that’s a part of culture. I think that too often entrepreneurs have a little bit too much control and I think people then become uncomfortable with that level of control.

Open discourse is a common value successful companies have, he said. Leading well and grooming your team to lead well will only boost your business, he said. That’s not the case if the founder’s word is the only word worth following.

"A confident leader understands that all solutions and ideas do not have to be their own," said Robert Herrera, the founder of the Mill coworking space in Wilmington, Del.

Your Checklist:

  • Get it in Writing: From the very outset, you should not only have your mission written down but also some of the core values you aspire to have associated with your organization. What are you trying to accomplish and what is unique about your approach? Find an annual tradition in reviewing these with your teammates to see if they are being followed and remain relevant.
  • Lead by example: You need to embody what spirit you want your organization to be, like being collaborative and holding high expectations. At a small, growing company, you should have done anything before you ask someone else to do it — sales, customer service and other core functions. That inspires empathy.
  • Hire Carefully: Culture is really just about the people who make up your team. The easiest way to attract great people is to already have great people on your team. We all want to be surrounded by bright and interesting people. So remember that from the very beginning, each team member you add is an advertisement for what kind of organization you’re building and who should work with you too. A good interview question is: “how will you help attract future great people to our team?” Expanding the interview team can also help provide everyone a voice, and get multiple opinions. 
  • Don’t tolerate jerks: Gospel from Mona Parikh, a prominent Delaware tech community organizer, from roles in recruiting at creative agency Archer Group and convening at coworking space coIN Loft. “No matter how talented someone is or how much revenue they’re generating for your company, if they’ve accomplished it by abusing, insulting, manipulating, circumventing or disrespecting others, then they’re a cancer to your company culture. No amount of free sodas or snacks will make up for it.” That means you have to be ready to let go someone who may perform well in some areas but keep other teammates from doing the same.
  • Don’t accept lower standards: No doubt you’ll ask a lot of your early team, but you don’t have to accept commitment or skill shortcomings. If someone isn’t pulling her weight, you’re doing neither that person, nor the teammates she’s meant to support, any favors by keeping her around. Let people know how they can improve in person and in writing, but if progress can’t be met, you need to be willing to let people go.
  • Let your employees be themselves: “If you want the best from people, you have to allow them to be the best,” said John Himics, cofounder of the web design and development company First Ascent Design. “Set up your requirements and guidelines, but then step back and let them do their job, flex their creativity, and always allow and encourage feedback. Invite them to help you make your business better.” And there’s room to keep changing as a company grows.
  • Don’t be afraid to delegate: As Greg Berry built government surplus auction Municibid in Philadelphia, the company added new ways to share responsibilities. “Our company culture certainly evolved over the years from very small sort of me doing everything as the initial founder to developing processes and procedures to bring on new team members who can handle pretty much everything. So we really focused on giving our employees free range to be able to do their jobs, and come up with new ways of doing tasks on a daily basis” he said.
  • Encourage traditions: One of those signs of an organization that has a culture worth celebrating is having distinct internal lingo, events and processes. As these begin to develop, name them, document them and encourage the team to use them as opportunities. What can start as a small internal joke can build into a defining effort. Baltimore-based dev firm SmartLogic hosts a weekly all-team standing meeting, during which they playfully pass a ball around and update the team on what they’re working on. They get active and excited early each week.
  • Incorporate employee engagement with the community: Have a quarterly Habitat for Humanity build — or some other annual or regular effort that gives back to the place where you work. Employees that engage with the community and actively give back have been shown to be more productive and happy in their work environments.
  • Rules can change, but values shouldn’t: There are core tenets that define every organization, often started by its cofounders. Those fundamentals likely won’t change much but the rules and processes that get there can. Allow new team members to influence the direction of something like an evolving Employee Manual. Greg Shelton said if people are stifled in the workplace, they’ll get bored and uncomfortable. Teammates being themselves keeps things fresh and interesting, he said. “That pushes confidence and leadership.”
  • Celebrate your culture in action: Find a way to bring attention to when someone on your team demonstrates your company values. That will help reinforce the behavior. For example, many companies uses internal team messaging tools like Slack to shout out when someone on their team does a difficult task that helps the company. That provides additional incentive to follow through with mission-relevant work.
  • Build relationships with your team, or at the very least, understanding: Relationship-building within companies is too-often overlooked. Having teammates who care about each other is a strong retention tool. That means encouraging bonding time that isn’t directly work relevant, like a team lunch, happy hour or trip can have important ripple effects. Encourage team members to pursue their passions together, like hobby or affinity groups.
  • Know why your teammates are there: There’s value in learning about your coworkers. “What makes them tick? What are signs they might be having a tough day? What are things you can do to help them out of those slumps?” If you understand what a teammate is working toward, you can help support it, which grows morale and supports retention.
  • Don’t force it: Sometimes you just need to be heads down and get work done. Pick your moments. In some cases, managers’ likes and dislikes often don’t align with those of their employees’. (Think Michael Scott from The Office.) “Managers and team leaders need to genuinely try to understand their teams before making assumptions on their behalf.” Don’t plan everything.
  • Communicate honestly whenever possible: Over-communication always trumps under-communication. Communication is a skill to be honed in the workplace. There is a balance here: while some organizations have experimented with completely transparent business health, others say you need to maintain some strategic advantage. Whatever the case is, the trend is to allowing your team members to know how things are going, so they can be excited when it’s working and able to help when it’s not.
  • Yeah, have fun: Take a page from the The Fun Dept. team, who have made bringing fun to others’ workplaces their entire business. All the research shows that the most productive companies have the concept of fun as a key part of their culture, said Nat Measley, the CEO and self-titled Master of Fun. “Companies that are reporting a culture of fun are reporting top high revenues, net profits and margins,” he said, pointing out that happier, healthier employees take less time off and are more productive both individually and on teams. A challenge with planning fun activities is that not everyone has the same idea of what’s fun. To solve that, Measley recommended planning supplemental activities for people who, say, aren’t comfortable ice skating at a company ice-skating shindig.

That’s where a foosball table or nap room might show up at your office, but that can’t be where you start. You must begin with the characteristics that define your organization. The rest will follow.

Incorporating fun into the culture is also a key way of looking at the concept: “It’s not just, ‘We’ve built this (company) and now let’s put fun on top of it,” Measley said. “Sometimes fun can drive culture itself.”

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