Listen for Laughter

One of the lasting memories of my childhood was listening to my father at the dinner table tell my mom and me about his day.

To put it mildly, he did not like his job. My dad worked in manufacturing at AT&T for 30 years and would tell us each evening how boring his job was, how much he didn’t like his coworkers and how “management” was not looking out for his best interests. I can even recall him going on strike with his labor union a couple times during the 1980s. There is no bigger sign of dysfunction in the workplace than the rank and file going on strike!

This had a profound impact on my conception of what it was like to be in the workforce, but not in the way you might expect.

Instead of growing up with an innate distrust for “management” and a belief that everyone is destined for a life of meaningless work in a dismal environment, I was determined to have the opposite. Why can’t you have a great job in an environment that you enjoy being in?

I was fortunate to know very early on what I wanted to do for a career. I took a Business Machines class in 10th grade (circa 1991) and knew instantly that I wanted to spend the rest of my life working with computers. I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to intern at IBM and Cisco during college. In 1997, I joined Cisco full-time at its RTP office, and I was hooked. The following year Cisco moved me to San Jose, Calif. where I got a front-row seat for the dotcom boom and bust.

In 2007, I decided to start my own company. Cisco had grown significantly larger at that point and had settled into an inefficient and stale corporate structure that plagues all companies with tens of thousands of employees. With stack ranking, silent layoffs and rampant politics, I felt I was no longer in control over my destiny. It was also soul crushing at times. You’d run across the occasional person who cared about the job, but many were just as happy promoting internal politics and cashing a check as creating amazing products.

Once my new company (Automated Insights) got in full swing in 2010, I had some important decisions to make. What kind of company was I building? How much time was I going to invest in shaping the culture? Was I really going to stick to my allegiances and only hire UNC grads?

For me, it was easy. I wanted to build a place where people enjoyed coming to work. If you weren’t having fun, then we weren’t the place for you. (Sorry dad, but I don’t think we’d be right for you.)

To me, it just seemed logical. You spend so much of your time at work, why wouldn’t you want to enjoy it? Unfortunately, most companies have a culture as interesting (and logical) as a Michael Scott presentation. I have lots of theories about why corporate culture is so bad, but I’ll leave that for another time.

This year, Ai was named one of the Best Places to Work in the Triangle for the fourth consecutive year. We are the only Triangle tech startup to have that distinction.

What’s our secret? It’s pretty simple really. I believe the work environment should not be a stilted, stuffy place where you treat people different than in your life outside of work. Nothing revolutionary about that. Oh, but there has to be plenty of laughter.

When someone asks me how I assess our culture, I offer an easy test: listen for laughter. If I don’t hear people laughing off-and-on during the day, we have an issue. I believe most people don’t laugh enough in their lives, so we promote a light and open communication style at Ai. I want people cracking jokes and making light of every day situations.

By not being so serious all of the time, it makes the times we are serious more impactful.

If you hear laughter frequently, I believe it satisfies many of the conditions needed to have a great culture — people feel comfortable around each other, they like making their coworkers happy, they have something clever or interesting to say and they are in a positive frame of mind. Sounds like the makings of a good place to be, right?

At Ai we’ve built some incredible technology, so I’m not going to say that all there is to building a great company is an awesome culture. But you can’t have a great company without a great culture.

Recently, I met with a local startup CEO because his board of directors told him he needed to make sure he was building a good culture. He wanted my feedback on what he should do about the “culture thing.” In so many words I told him that building a great place to work isn’t a check box that you review at board meetings. It’s got to start at the top with the CEO believing in it.

The CEO has to live and breathe the culture to ensure it diffuses throughout the company. Of course you can punt on the “culture thing” and risk making your employees miserable, but life is short. Why not build the next Best Place to Work?

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