Start Traditions That Won’t Last

It takes a lot of work to mold a company’s culture, especially in the beginning. It starts off as a blank sheet. Do you want to be formal or informal, funny or serious, transparent or opaque, hierarchal or flat, work from home or everyone in the office, open floorplan or offices? You don’t always verbally define these things, they get set implicitly through the values and actions of the founders and early employees.

One way to solidify and reinforce culture early on is through traditions. Traditions are also great for building up the history of a company’s culture. In many cases, traditions are memorable and live on well after the tradition goes away.

At Automated Insights, some traditions were created without my involvement and others are directly from me. Rarely have I seen an employee-initiated tradition be a negative thing. Often they involve assigning some activity to a particular day of the week. For example, Thursdays is a day when a lot of people go to Only Burger (referred to internally as Only Burger Thursday or OBT). Other traditions involve playing basketball on Wednesday afternoon or getting coffee at 9:30am every morning from the local coffee shop.

Those type of traditions are largely out of your hands as a CEO, but that’s a good thing. The more traditions form on their own, the better.

Early on, I needed to decide what to do when an employee had a birthday. It’s a big day for them, so how can we help celebrate? What we did changed as the company got bigger.

When we had 10 employees (less than 1 birthday a month), I’d personally buy a cake on each birthday. As we got bigger, we got tired of eating so much cake.

Then we decided to take the whole company out to lunch to the location of choice for the birthday boy or girl. That worked well until we got to 20 or so people when buying lunch for the whole company every other week got expensive (we already provided a stocked fridge.)

Then we changed it to taking the whole company out to lunch once per month and having everyone that had a birthday that month jointly decide on where we’d go. That worked until we got to about 30–40 employees after which we’d overwhelm most local restaurants ability to handle that many people at once.

After that, I stopped doing anything on birthdays for a while. Once you hit 50 employees, your options to do something company-wide are greatly diminished.

We recently started a new birthday tradition of allowing the birthday person to select a speciality item from the grocery store to be picked up on their birthday week. We’ve only had this a few weeks now, but it’s already fascinating to see how it has impacted the culture. Our office manager writes on a whiteboard what each birthday person selected for the week. Some of the selections have generated much discussion.

Any time you can have an employee select something for the office, it offers insight into their personality and creates all sorts of discussion.

When you are getting started, you shouldn’t worry about whether a tradition is something that will last. It’s a good thing when traditions stop or change. It’s like the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. We often recall with fondness traditions we had in the past.

Here are a few of our extinct traditions:

  • When someone went on vacation, we’d destroy their desk in some way we found funny. This ranged from wrapping a desk in plastic wrap to covering a desk with dinosaurs. We stopped doing it because as more people went on vacation it became harder to be creative with something “funny” to do with their desk.
We moved one employee’s stuff on top of this rolling whiteboard. The chair is holding up the whiteboard. We liked doing things that require more than one person to undo. Welcome back from vacation!
  • Fathead for every employee! Part of joining Ai in the early days is you were able to pick your Fathead of choice to put on the wall. We made a whole ceremony out of placing the Fathead on the wall. The particular Fathead that was selected said a lot about the person. Also, it was something tangible in the office you could point to that was your doing. We ended up with wall-to-wall Fatheads. We described our decor as “Dorm Room Chic.” It didn’t give off a real professional vibe, so we stopped doing after our last office move.
  • We used to play “Around the World” every Friday afternoon. The whole company would stop working around 4pm and gather around the Ping Pong table. It was a lot of fun, but was less practical as we got bigger. Some people are trying to bring this one back.
  • I used to do “One More Thing” at the end of every company meeting where I’d do something funny/crazy to end the meeting. I had to stop this tradition recently because “One More Thing” became a highly anticipated focal point for the meeting instead of the primary content we were trying to communicate.

Obviously not all traditions fade away. Some morph or continue on. Encourage them and don’t be afraid to start new ones as the opportunity arises. It’s hard to predict which traditions will have staying power, but you’ll never know if you don’t try.