Changing the culture of a company isn’t an easy feat. It requires consistent communication, a clearly defined strategy and a commitment from every layer of the organization. The challenge many companies face is they neglect to create their culture from the start. It’s not until it turns toxic or their reputation is at risk that it’s then viewed as a priority.
Despite what disgruntled employees may believe, companies don’t set out to create a toxic culture. Lizzie Benton, founder and culture consultant at Liberty Mind, expressed “founders are often so focused on keeping the work-flow coming in that culture takes a back seat.” It’s always seen as something that comes after the business is up and running, but the truth is, a healthy culture is what helps the business run.
Scandals such as Away, Nike, Lululemon and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation have exposed the workplace culture crisis happening across businesses today. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, toxic cultures have cost companies $223 billion in the past five years.
The Disconnect That Turns Cultures Toxic
Recently, Google’s vice president of people operations, Eileen Naughton, stepped down as tensions between employees and management continue to grow. Google’s culture has taken a downward spiral due to workers speaking out about various workplace issues and mistreatment.
Known for their perks, popularity and prestige, Google employees have demonstrated what they really want: to be respected, treated fairly, share the same set of values and work in a safe environment where they feel comfortable sharing their opinion and using their voice. In a healthy workplace, perks are an added bonus. In a toxic one, they’re almost irrelevant.
Founders and CEOs play an important role in defining, creating, influencing and re-assessing the culture as the company grows and evolves. The key to success is building a foundation early on. Steve Koepp, founder of From Day One, stated “startups are focused on growing fast and often neglecting sustainability. They want to get to a competitive level where they’re unassailable with the competition.”
Kevin Gyolai, president of Gyolai Consulting, said this short-term view fosters a culture that focuses on results at all costs” such as quick hiring and making decisions that are misaligned with the core values of the company. As a result, the culture is formed accidentally rather than intentionally. The consequences of this are almost never positive.
CEOs and founders are the role models for the rest of the organization. What they do or don’t do indicates what will and won’t be tolerated. Traditionally, CEOs and founders remained disconnected from anyone who wasn’t on the leadership team. Instead, they delegated cultural efforts to human resources or a culture committee.
David Waring, CEO and founder of FitSmallBusiness, said “cultural efforts need to be led by the CEO.” He went on to explain “as a company scales, leadership needs to be very deliberate and specific about establishing what the ideal culture looks like.”
The Core Questions To Building An Intentional Culture
Whether created intentionally or by accident, company cultures are a reflection of the senior leaders. Benton asserted, “culture is everyone’s responsibility but it must start from the founder or CEO. A good strong culture can’t be cultivated if they aren’t living and breathing it.”
The mistake most managers unknowingly make is letting unconscious bias affect their hiring decisions. The consequence of this is failing to assess cultural fit and hiring someone who poisons the culture.
Greenhouse, the leading talent acquisition suite was founded to help companies become more intentional with recruiting. Founders, Daniel Chait and Jon Stross, started their company by asking one question: “how can we be good at hiring?” While everyone else was focused on quick growth and massive profits, Chait and Stross concentrated on creating an impactful product and an intentional culture.
When asked what makes Greenhouse’s culture unique, Stross shared he makes it a priority to attend every new-hire orientation. Stross understands culture is a top-down approach and he wants each new hire to understand how important they are to the success of the company. Realistically, he knows employees will likely be in a different job in a few years, therefore, he wants their time at Greenhouse to leave a lasting positive impact for the rest of their career.
In a Forbes interview, Stross said “it was interesting to learn that many people see Greenhouse as the place they want to settle down and grow in their career.” Unsurprisingly, the recruiting software company has been the winner of various workplace culture awards. In 2017, they were recognized by Glassdoor as a #1 Best Place to Work winner.
Stross shared some questions he and Chait asked themselves when trying to gain clarity about the culture they wanted to create:
- What kind of company do we want to be?
- What values do we care about?
- How do we make that happen?
- How does that show up in the first day of orientation, the way we hire, how we manage our people, in all-hands meetings and the way we pay our workers?
- How do we make our values come alive?
It’s never too late to revisit and redefine company values if they’re not aligned with the desired culture. A strong set of core values will help filter out toxic individuals and behaviors. To maximize effectiveness, founders and CEOs should pledge to live them out in everything they do. Those who violate the values need to be held accountable, regardless of title, tenure or rank.
When establishing core values, companies should look at Zappos for inspiration. They’ve taken the core values a step further from the traditional. Instead of listing them out broadly, Tony Hsieh, CEO, worked closely with his employees to detail each individual value and explain how it supports, protects and grows the company culture. Additionally, their values are at the core of everything they do from hiring, firing, training, disciplining and more.