It astounds me that the majority of my friends and family don’t love their jobs. Consider how much of your adult life you spend at work. Wouldn’t you want a job you love going to everyday?
People who love their job often cite their company’s culture. I think of culture as the collective personality of a company. The secret sauce that defines the feeling you have when you walk into work every morning.
I’ve worked for 12 companies since the age of 15. From McDonalds and Carmella’s Pizzeria in my hometown to J.P. Morgan Chase on Wall Street. In that time, I’ve learned there are three classes of company culture.
- Companies with truly great and organic cultures.
- Companies that try really hard to create a great culture, tell everyone including themselves they have one, but are simply faking it.
- Companies that have unhealthy work environments and don’t pretend to care.
I’ve had the pleasure and displeasure of working at all three types.
A question that many people ask is how to create a great culture. Create might not be the right word though. Cultures can be molded and cultivated but not prescribed to employees.
When I think about the companies I’ve worked for, two stand out as embodiments of the first culture class. Company outings felt more like a wedding rehearsal dinner than an organized team event.
I believe the most important thing a company can do to guarantee long term success is to cultivate a culture that employees celebrate. Great cultures attract great people. Great people build great things.
When I was in high school, I used to fight with my parents all the time. At one point, I refused to apply to colleges. My mom actually forged my signature on applications because I was being so stubborn (thanks, Mom).
Despite the fact I was a parenting nightmare, my parents were always there for me and unfailingly forgave me.
By no means am I suggesting that companies tolerate immaturity. Rather, I believe that at the foundation of great cultures, are employees who are willing to forgive each other. The worst companies I’ve worked for embodied selfish environments overflowing with passive agressive personalities; in such a setting collaboration is close to impossible.
At Bonobos, where I work now, we have our fair share of differences among departments. Anyone who has worked at an online fashion company can empathize. We have teams that are dedicated to the product we create as well as teams dedicated to the platform we sell those products on.
That’s not to say there is a great divide between these two groups of people. Instead, there is a mutual admiration. One of the core virtues of our company is empathy. We expect all employees to spend just as much time seeing the company from their peers’ point of view as they do their own.
Coming back to the analogy of family, most of you likely made some pretty big mistakes growing up. Chances are your parents don’t bring it up every year at Thanksgiving dinner.
In business, this is different for a number of reasons. People traditionally view their coworkers as just that. Coworkers. A workplace with a great culture has employees that view their peers as something more. Family might be a bit of a jump and a little cliche, but employees at the best cultures aren’t afraid to call their peers, friends.
So many times in my career I have encountered coworkers who “can’t stand” each other. What does anyone have to gain by refusing to forgive a difference of opinion? Why is it common place and accepted at so many companies?
There must be at least one co-worker you have that’s on your “shit list.” Everything they do rubs you the wrong way. You feel the company has nothing to gain from them being a part of the team and that nothing would be lost if they weren’t there tomorrow. Despite those feelings, ask yourself what you gain by investing energy in disliking them.The answer is probably nothing. Instead, consider offering that individual or their manager some constructive feedback.
Hiring “rockstars” is not the recipe for a great culture. In fact, you most likely know someone who works at a company of “talented assholes.” It’s rather unfortunate because those individuals often confuse being direct with negative energy. They prioritize “the right” answer over strengthening relationships for the long term.
The first step to building a great culture is to hire individuals who prioritize honesty, empathy and positive energy for the collective good, over individual opportunities and agendas.
Bragging can be a good thing.
I have lived close to Yankee Stadium for my entire life. I’ve also been fortunate enough to witness some pretty historic milestones. I was at the game where Mariano Rivera surpassed Trevor Hoffman as the MLB all times save leader. I also sat in the section where Derek Jeter’s home run ball landed when he got his 3,000 hit (a game in which every hit of his either tied or gave the Yankees the lead).
The other milestone I witnessed was Derek Jeter surpassing Lou Gehrig for first place on the Yankees all time hit list. What stands out most to me that day was his post-game news conference. He was so quick to defer the attention away from himself and instead focus on his team. He was humbled by the idea of being mentioned in the same breath as a hall of fame player.
Derek Jeter has had decisive hits in some of the most important games in Yankees history. He has never accepted those accomplishments as his own though. If you listen to his responses to news reporters, they are often focused on the team or the history of the Yankee organization. Never himself. You see the immense pride he has to be a Yankee and that he values his role within the organization over his own individual accomplishments.
Derek Jeter teaches an important lesson when it comes to building a great culture. Both of the great companies I’ve worked for had employees that were so proud of where they worked, they would brag about their employer before they would brag about themselves.
At Bonobos we take it one step further by wearing our pride on our sleeves. Literally. We make some of the brightest and most colorful pants you’ve ever seen. I had never worn a pair before showing up to my first day of work. My boss approached me on my third week at Bonobos and said, “Evan, I’ve never seen someone assemble a closet of bright colored pants so fast in their first month here.”
Bragging about one’s company is not just great for culture, it’s great for business as well. Ask most online retailers what their most succesful acquisition channel is. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear all of them rank referral programs at or near the top of those lists.
Now, bragging is partially an outcome of a great culture. That being said, giving your employees reasons to brag is within your control. At Bonobos we have benefits that range from a washer and dryer in our office (in NYC, that’s nothing to scoff at… not to mention doing your laundry at work means one less chore you’re doing in your personal time) to Camp Bonobos, a two night camping trip where we bus all employees in the company to New Hampshire (company paid cell phones don’t work for miles).
Another company I worked at that has employees with immense pride was Johnson & Johnson. J&J spends significant time in new employee training talking about their company history (something our CEO at Bonobos does in every team meeting). Having a history that is worth talking about obviously helps. Still, it’s no mistake that great companies take the time to talk about their past. Talking about ones history is a very easy way to create a sense of pride amongst employees.
I‘ve gone on a lot of dates while living in New York City. The one conversation that inevitably comes up on every first date is “what do you do for work?” When I first lived in the city, I’d often answer that I was a product manager or describe what my typical day was like.
In the past year and a half though, I find myself talking about my company and how much I love working there. (My CEO reassured me after reading a draft of this article: “No wonder you’re still single.”)
By the time I’m done explaining what it means to “sell pants on the internet”, I’ve usually lost the energy to talk about what I do individually. If they insist, I jest that I answer e-mails at a startup (which is not always far from the truth.)
The second element of a great culture is a collection of employees who are more excited to brag about their company, than they are themselves.
A loyal core.
Recruiting for great cultures takes a lot of patience and energy. That seems counterintuitive since great cultures should have a line out the door for every job they post.
You might think that companies with great cultures simply have a higher standard for their incoming candidates. While that might be true, I find the challenge to be different. You want to recruit people who will stay with your company for years to come.
Recruiting for loyalty is a bit of a Catch-22. Determining why someone is leaving their job is critical. Do you really want to recruit someone who is ready to jump ship at a moments notice? Some of the best employees at Bonobos were recruited over the course of years. Their loyalty to their previous employer only made us want them more.
I’ve been at Bonobos for a year and a half. Not a long enough time to make me an expert on loyalty. Still, I haven’t accepted one LinkedIn invite or returned one recruiter phone call in regards to a new job.
Now, not all of that is some undying love and loyalty for my company (for which I do have). The reason is I’m happy. Most of that has to do with what Bonobos and our management team has offered me. I believe I’m compensated fairly and given opportunities that other companies wouldn’t be able to offer. Most importantly, I’m working in a culture that makes my job feel like anything but a job.
Whatever the reason someone chooses to remain at their company, it has an incredible effect on culture.
Consider the inverse. Have you ever been at a company where there is an exodus of top talent? The company feels like it’s in a tailspin. Sure you can hire fast enough to fill open headcount but your culture is facing a speedy death in the process (not to mention burdened by the cost of training and loss of productivity). Morale dips. More top talent sees the writing on the wall. It’s a vicious cycle and I’ve seen first hand the damage it can do.
Companies with great cultures have such strong loyalty and retention that the successor to every key role can exist within the company. That’s no small task considering people eventually get hungry and want to climb the ladder. How can you have replacements waiting in the wings if they are waiting forever for loyal employees to get out of the way?
It’s simple. Individuals who brag about their company as if it were their own kid, care more about the team than they care about themselves. Those are the individuals who will stick around and wait patiently to serve as the future of your company instead of leaving for new opportunities.
Loyalty is the key to solidifying culture.
Our CEO recently e-mailed our company sharing that a dinner had occurred for the 10 employees who have been at the company since before 2009. As context, the company was founded by two people back in 2007.
Four years is an eternity for the 10 people at that dinner (you can think of time at a startup like dog years). So much changes at a startup in its early years which makes their tenure all the more impressive.
Those individuals have fortified our culture. Many have come and gone from Bonobos in that time but that core group has ensured that we recruit and promote team members that reinforce the values of our company.
The New York Yankees had four players through their most recent championship years nicknamed “The Core Four.” Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Jorge Posoda and Mariano Rivera all played for the five most recent championship teams. The team changed around them over the course of 13 years but they brought consistency that kept the team focused on their mission: To win the World Series every year.
The third element of a great culture is a core of individuals who protect the company’s values as the company grows and other individuals move on.
Serving a common purpose.
Something that is not news to those of you who have read about great companies is the importance of a mission statement. Mission statements define a company’s reason for being. It is something that individuals aspire to achieve when they come to work everyday.
One of my favorite definitions of a company is a group of individuals coming together to accomplish something that they could not accomplish on their own.
Despite having a mission statement at your company, you most likely know at least one individual who works at your company that could care less about that mission. They work to further their own career or simply to collect a paycheck.
The greatest difference between the great cultures and the rest, is not just having a great mission, but having all employees believe in that mission.
Having an inspiring mission statement motivates employees. Motivated employees are happy employees. Purpose also creates alignment and removes conflict. The most important thing to evaluate when recruiting is a passion for your company’s mission.
Organizations who issue equity to all their employees reinforce a common purpose. Equity ensures everyone has a vested interest in the fate of your company.
At Bonobos, we recently surveyed the employees of the company asking them two questions. What do you believe is the purpose of Bonobos and why do you work here? The results were incredible. Having never formally defined our mission before, it was stunning to see how similar the statements were.
Even more inspiring was the list of reasons that people gave for why they work at Bonobos. The word family came up so many times. Instead of everyone talking about opportunity, money, products or business, they used words like people, humans, positive energy and happiness.
You’d think we were a cheesy group of individuals until you show up to one of our bar nights. We know how to have a good time.
The fourth element of a great culture are individuals that are truly motivated by a common purpose. Individuals who in turn think like shareholders.
So what should you make of all of this?
A lot of friends have approached me for advice in the past year. After seeing my pictures on Facebook or Instagram, they’ve asked me “how do I get a job like the one you have?”
I have two pieces of advice. One for my friends and anyone else who is unhappy with their job, and one for companies of the world.
If you don’t love your current job, make a list of what really makes you unhappy. Before you go looking for a job based on the industry, the job title, the pay or a promotion, ensure that those things will solve the problems you just listed out.
When you leave the corporate world for a startup, it often involves taking a pay cut. Once you’ve worked for a few years at a startup you become a hot commodity having gained such broad experiences. I know that situation applies to many people at Bonobos who have been at our company for years. The reason they haven’t left is our culture can not be found anywhere else.
As you think about leaving your job and where to go next, I’d recommend placing an emphasis on the culture, values and mission of a company, and ensuring they are something that excite you. Salary, title and vacation days will only add up to the sum of things that scratch the surface of happiness.
The second piece of advice I have is for the companies of the world. The most succesful companies I’ve ever worked for placed an emphasis on the people that work at those companies. A smart tactic considering companies are nothing without employees (and customers).
If by the time you’re done reading this article, you’d still prefer to pay your employees lower wages, let your top talent leave, cut benefits and pocket incremental savings from ending company outings an hour early, you’re probably one of the companies that my friends are trying to leave.
Do right by your employees and they’ll do right by you.
Additional credit to Sarah Hasazi and Daniel Wipert who helped me edit my article.