• Chris Barbin

When It Comes to Culture, It’s the Little Things

Building a great company culture is a lot like building a great brand. It starts with knowing who you are and who you want to be, and then being thoughtful and proactive about living those values. Every. Single. Day. It’s the little things a company does that define and reinforce a brand, and the same goes for culture.

In my eBook, “Why You Can’t Ignore Company Culture (and What To Do About It)”, I cover the big things that form the foundation of a winning culture - meaningful purpose, connectedness, personal growth and a great worker experience. This blog is about the little things leaders can do to reinforce these attributes in their businesses. Here are a few easy ones to start with if you aren't doing them already.

When communicating, start with the “Why.

Jeff Richards, a partner at GGV Capital and a former Appirio board member, has met a lot of great leaders over the years and says this is what separates the great leaders from the mediocre ones. “The best CEOs can both tell a story and drive operational execution. They start with inspiring people through the story, the narrative, the “why,” and then they work with their team to drive execution. You can’t build a great company without execution, but no one wakes up in the morning inspired and saying “I can’t wait to increase revenue by 10%!”

Welcome new hires in a big way.

Every new employee at Google gets a rainbow propeller hat their first day with the word Noogler embroidered on it, which they’re supposed to wear to their first TGIF all-hands meeting so co-workers can identify and welcome new Googlers. Unique but effective. At Appirio, we shipped every new employee a box of company swag stuffed with cotton balls to represent “the cloud” (the industry we were in) - a surprise waiting for them when they get home! We also dedicated a portion of our bi-weekly all hands meeting to introduce the new hires to the broader team, showing their photos and asking a few people to tell their story about how they ended up at Appirio.

Acknowledge when people leave and don’t be afraid to acknowledge their contributions.

Saying goodbye (especially to top talent) is hard, but it's going to happen and leaders can't take it personally. Be happy for them and make a good last impression because you never know where people will end up and who you might be working with again. Create an alumni group on Facebook or LinkedIn. Hold alumni events to bring people (and businesses) together. Lori Williams, one of Appirio’s early employees who is now Chief Delivery Officer at Gigster, recently held an alumni event for more than 70 former Appirians at Gigster’s HQ this year to make sure these friends and former colleagues stay connected long after they’ve left.

A recent Appirio alumni event at Gigster's HQ

Maryam Norouzi, who is now a delivery leader at Salesforce, worked with Lori to start a Women of Appirio Alumni group on Facebook so the group could support one another in their new endeavors. According to Lori, “a powerful manifestation of a healthy company culture is how it infuses the ecosystem surrounding it.”

Ensure executives participate in interviews and onboarding, no matter how big you get.

Culture lives or dies with its leaders. Involving them early in an employee’s journey, and modeling the level of engagement and values expected from employees will keep the culture strong as the companies grows and expands. It also helps to keep the talent bar high. At Studio Science, CEO Steve Pruden makes sure he and his leadership team is involved across an employee’s tenure. As Steve says, “Engaging with employees and building a culture of trust and transparency needs to happen up and down the org chart.”

Be vulnerable.

Even senior managers or executives have personal issues to deal with -- sick parents, kids transitioning, illnesses of friends, personal illnesses -- even stress! Everyone is human at the end of the day and sharing some of these challenges shows the broader team it’s OK to be human. It allows teams to rally around and support one another, ultimately creating a tighter bond and culture in the end.

Appoint a person(s) responsible for planning activities and team events.

Finding ways to connect employees with each other, with their managers and with the customers can is important - whether that’s in-person happy hours, virtual topic clubs, or philanthropic events to give back to the community. Once you identify an owner, give them a budget. Mike Epner, President of Traction on Demand, says his company has a full-time role dedicated to “office happiness” that is focused on improving the workplace experience for each site and injecting fun and camaraderie. According to Mike, they recently had a public shaving of an 8-year beard which raised $10,000 for prostate cancer prevention!

Recognize teams AND individuals. Frequently.

Create a highly visible award to celebrate people’s contributions a customer, a team and how they live the company's values. Traction on Demand has a coveted “all star” award which employees vote on every quarter. The winner gets a hockey card created in his or her honor complete with key stats on their accomplishments and a plaque on the wall at HQ. At Appirio, all mid-level managers had points they could give to employees through a public #shoutout on our company wide collaboration system, which could be traded in for company swag. Let everyone participate in the recognition process, not just executives.

Take the time to get to know people.

This probably sounds like good old fashioned manners, but personal relationships and interactions matter. For example, greet people when you’re at a company event. It’s easy to default and interact with your direct reports, but great leaders get out and meet the broader team. Jeff Richards tells a great story about a senior executive he worked with who attended a corporate summit with 100 up and coming leaders inside the company, and made it a specific point to meet every single attendee and connect on a personal level. He had a roster of attendees and literally made sure to interact with each one. When he was eventually elevated to the CEO role inside the company, he had a tremendous base of support from across the organization – people were rooting for him to succeed.

Acknowledge that employees have a life outside of the office.

Celebrate personal milestones like marriages, new babies, or major achievements. If an employee has been working overtime for months on a big project, give them a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant with their spouse. Ryan Westwood, CEO of Simplus, understands the key to an employee’s heart is with their family, which is why when employees start at Simplus they get a handwritten note welcoming them to a “clean start” and offer a cleaning service to come clean their home. According to Ryan, “you can’t neglect the people who support the employee.”

Ensure people actually take vacation - and lead by example!

The always on laptop, cell phone, video call -- should not be always on when its recharge time. Vacations should be taken, and celebrated and ‘grazing’ while on them should be discouraged. An ‘I’m completely off the grid’ out of office message is highly encouraged to ensure proper family and away time, ensuring a refreshed and clear minded teammate on his or her return.

These are only a few ideas based on my own personal experience and the input of a few business leaders who I respect when it comes to building culture. Would love to hear from you on Twitter (@c_barbin) or LinkedIn about what other ideas have worked in your organization!


© 2019 by Chris Barbin. All right reserved.