How to Build a Successful Culture

Stories of ping pong tables and free lunches — markers of company culture offered to describe how great a workplace is — are everywhere. But among companies large and small, there’s a growing dissatisfaction with this superficial understanding of what culture actually means.

“What is culture?” is perpetually asked but it doesn’t — and perhaps won’t ever — have a prescriptive answer to it. And it shouldn’t. At its core, a successful culture helps drive an organization to operate and engage to its highest potential. It’s a common language that companies devise for themselves, a way to guide how teams work together and make decisions. Given that every company’s work varies greatly, so too should its culture.

But while there’s a whole set of beliefs and behaviors that have been espoused, how do you actually go about instilling them? How do you assemble a team from different backgrounds and experiences and ensure that they work, think, and hold the same beliefs?

I brought together a group of people who are heavily involved in the construction of their company’s workplace values and rhythms, both as a founders and employees, to talk about all things culture. From our discussion, here are a few key critical steps that have proven to be helpful:

  • Create your values early on and be inclusive. If you’re a small company, get your whole team together and talk about what you hold important as a group. Turn the conversation headlines into a set of values that everyone agrees with and holds closely.
    If you’re further along, involve your whole organization by really listening: Create a survey to gather all opinions and use that information as the starting point for pinning down or refining your values with a smaller, representative group.
  • Have a process for everything — but be open to changing them. The goal of a successful culture is to make talking about difficulties normal. Spelled-out ways of working make it easier to discuss — and improve — things that aren’t working. Don’t see processes as limiting to creativity; they allow teams to improve and be critical in how they approach problem-solving.
  • Give everyone a sense of responsibility. Then repeat, repeat, repeat those expectations. A big part of building culture is simply making the implicit explicit. Tell your team what behaviors, values, and actions you hold dear and give them the same understanding and freedom to express their own. Then, as a leader, repeat these as often as needed for them to become ingrained. Sounding like a broken record has never been so welcomed.
    On the flip side, don’t be afraid to kindly call out behaviors that are not representative of the company. By not calling things out, you implicitly make it ok for those behaviors to continue (and, in most cases, only get worse).
  • Have one-on-ones and encourage feedback. As a founder, take every early employee out for a coffee, lunch, or walk. Welcome them to the team, talk about your values and expectations (repeat, repeat, repeat!), and, most importantly, encourage — and be open to — their honest feedback.
    As teams grow, bake designated one-on-ones between colleagues in to your onboarding process and to the responsibilities of leads and managers. This will keep the tradition, continue to build trust, and make sure everyone has a person to safely express their frustrations to down the line.
  • Use critical moments to build trust and expand transparency. There will be moments where things don’t go as planned. Sensitive information may be leaked to the press. Someone acts rashly, to the detriment of the company. Instead of retreating to secrecy, talk about what went wrong and continue to interact as you have been before. Use this moment as a learning experience to reflect on where the culture broke down and how the organization can come together to prevent it from happening again. Don’t alienate an entire team because of one person’s actions.

The above are lessons that came in the form of gained-through-experience, passed-through-tales wisdom. What ties them together is a common sentiment that culture is not about what a company offers, but about how people in a company behave.

Here are some resources that have been helpful for many in building their company culture.

There’s more where this came from. Join us for future discussions on culture by leaving your email address here.

Special thanks to Mollie West, Liza Conrad, Shreyans Bhansali, Caroline Lau, Kyle Wulff, Megan Wheeler, and Gregor Hochmuth.