Building A Winning Culture: Why a standout culture is your secret weapon in the war for talent

By Laurie Tennant

When a candidate has two job offers on the table, company culture is often the crucial element that tips their decision to one employer over another. After all, you’re going to be spending more time at your job than you do at home with
your loved ones — most of us have already realized that our workplace needs to be a place where we feel like we fit in.

“Much like a personality, a culture is something you have — like it or not,” says Scott Day, SVP, People & Culture, OpenTable. “If your personality isn’t one that attracts the types of relationships you want to have in your life, it’s
something you can work on. You will probably not change your cultural DNA.”
With “culture” so much in the news these days, especially when things have gone wrong, many CEOs are focusing on creating a positive and productive culture from the beginning. And some don’t need this nudge from the latest
publicized cautionary tale — often they are influenced by their own time in a company with a topic culture. Whatever the reason, more and more CEOs are determined to be intentional about building a culture that reflects and
reinforces their values.

At our recent Norwest Talent Summit we dug into what makes a great company culture. People leaders from Glint, Omada Health, Electronic Arts, Philz Coffee, OpenTable and more came together and shared their thoughts on building a winning culture. Here are a few of the key takeaways.

What Defines a Great Company Culture?

Day defined culture as “identity and a sense of having clarity of what the company is…who are we? Why are we here?”

It’s no surprise then that many of the companies on the annual Fortune’s Best Places to Work list have well-defined company cultures built on their deeply held values, and workplace policies and perks that align with them. These
companies recognize that building a great culture takes more than installing a foosball table and a rock climbing wall.

For example, when you walk into any Kimpton hotel (#14 on the list), you’ll see a water bowl on the ground alongside a sign that notes pets are welcome at the property. This pet friendliness and acknowledgment of pets as furry family members extends to their employees. In addition to allowing employees to bring their “Director of Pet Relations” (dogs) to work, they provide pet bereavement leave to employees. Pet friendliness has been a part of their culture since the hotel’s in 1981 — a great example of building policies to support your core values from the very beginning.

Similarly, Wegman’s (#2 on the list) sees themselves as more than just a grocery store, believing they are a resource that helps “people live healthier, better lives through food.” And the employees lean into that mission.
It’s this sense of everyone being part of a greater cause or mission that makes a culture really come alive and embed within the company’s DNA.

Although People Teams may be significant advocates for culture, there is increasing awareness that culture is both bottoms up and top-down — and there isn’t a single owner. Carolyn Frey, Chief People Officer, Philz Coffee, agrees, noting: “Culture is everyone. Everyone owns a piece of that in their organization. That sense of we are all part of this bigger purpose.”

A good CEO understands their role in owning the culture and their impact on it. They recognize that their employees are watching the C-Suite. Are you emphasizing frugality while executives fly first class and have expensive catered meals in the office? Do you reward and reprimand employees in line with your values?

No matter what you state as your company values, people pick up the signals from what they observe being rewarded; the behaviors that get recognition, raises, and promotions create and reinforce your company culture — 
the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“It comes down to aligning on what the culture is,” says Frey. “And what the fundamental purpose and values are from the beginning.”

Building a Strong Company Culture

Reid Hoffman believes that in order to build a strong company that drives business results, it takes transparency, commitment, and a willingness to let candidates walk away. In his introduction to a recent interview with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, he said: “I believe strong company cultures only emerge when every employee feels they own the culture — and this begins even before the first job interview.”

He goes on to note that Netflix sees itself as a high performing sports team. That sort of competitive environment won’t appeal to everyone, and they’re OK with that. It is the sort of culture that some candidates will opt out from in
the hiring process. And that’s precisely the point. If your culture appeals to everyone, is it really driving business decisions and results? Probably not.

But the good news and the bad news is: It’s really difficult to build a great company culture. This is good news because it means your competitors can’t copy what can be your company’s biggest asset. But it’s also bad news
because its complexity also means it takes hard work to build, and an unwavering commitment to maintain.

“Culture is ultimately an output of doing a lot of things right,” said Mala Singh, Chief People Officer, Electronic Arts. “The role of the people team is really to look at the system. And to be the voices that are able to articulate when the
system is in support of the values we hold dear as a company and when things about our system don’t reinforce those values.”

In turn, Singh noted the importance of understanding how the culture influences all sorts of business activities. Who you hire, what your onboarding process looks like, how you assess people, and how you make promotion
decisions — your culture is a big part of all of this. The way you manage these activities, and the decisions you make, will either reinforce or undermine the culture you are trying to maintain — they will never be neutral.

In addition, your company’s culture and its values aren’t static. Although some elements may be evergreen, you should expect — and encourage — them to evolve over time.

“Our values have changed several times over the past 35 years,” said Sherry Whiteley, EVP & Chief People Officer, Intuit. “It’s not ‘one and done’. There are two really enduring values that have stood the test of time. “Integrity without
compromise” which means don’t go near the line. The other one is ‘we care and give back’.”

It used to be common for organizations to define corporate values from the top-down, often at closed-door sessions facilitated at an executive offsite. These days many more companies try to involve employees at every step along the way — from defining the values to deciding who gets recognized for demonstrating the values. That’s the approach Singh took when EA recently revamped their company values.

“We rolled out new values about a year ago,” said Singh. “The company and our business is dramatically shifting…we recognized a while ago we needed to transform what games look like as a business. We let the organization
transform…and then we articulated the values based on what we saw happening in the company…we crowdsourced what the values needed to be. A year later, we implemented a recognition program on those values, and
crowdsourced who should be recognized.”

Why Culture Matters

When culture goes bad, it can result in bad publicity, leadership attrition, and a loss of customers. Look no further than recent Uber headlines to see this in action. Uber is undergoing significant struggles due to what’s been called a
toxic, frat-house culture. The toxic culture initially only impeded employee retention and hiring. But as word of the gender discrimination and other issues were made public, it started costing them customers as well. And they’re not the only ones making recent headlines, unfortunately.

When you get culture right, in addition to keeping you out of the headlines, it can be a differentiator in the pursuit of talent.

“There isn’t a lot of other stuff for us to compete on…culture is the right thing to do, the right thing to focus on,” said Frey. “Culture and that sense of belonging and greater purpose in life is so important. At Philz, culture is not just about competitive advantage. It’s about making it a better place to work for all of us.”

As a plus, a clearly defined culture makes it easier to ensure every employee feels like they belong. When employees know they have joined a company whose culture is aligned with their own values, they are inspired and
supported to perform at their personal highest level.

Many executives don’t get the importance of culture until it goes bad. But that’s typically too late. No matter how many consultants you bring in or what kind of employer branding you undertake, it’s not easy to transform your
culture — kind of like attempting to turn the Titanic before you hit the iceberg that you see in front of you.

Culture in Action

For culture to be more than just slick employer branding with a fancy career page, it needs to pervade every area of the organization and truly define how you do business.

Philz Coffee embodies this, putting culture front-and-center when making all their executive decisions.

“Behind closed doors, at the C-level, we’re putting every decision through the culture test,” said Frey. “Every single decision. Is this right by our culture? Are we living our values?” Frey also noted those decisions include letting go high performing team members if they aren’t a good culture fit. “You need to make tough decisions,” she said. “We’ve let go talented team members…who didn’t fit the culture. If you let one team member who doesn’t fit the culture
continue with the organization, you’re breaking culture.”

And when you use culture as an uncompromising filter in your hiring process, it will help weed out potential culture clashes before they have a chance to have an adverse impact on the organization. That’s why Airbnb makes passing
culture interviews part of their process.

“Every single employee that works at Airbnb, and I mean every single employee, up to the CFO we hired while I was there, goes through two culture interviews,” said Scott Day, SVP, People & Culture, OpenTable, who formerly worked for Airbnb. “You can be perfectly capable on the front of whatever your function is, but you still have to go through two culture interviews. The team of culture interviewers come from every rank and every location throughout the company. They are hand-selected by the CEO, and they have veto authority (on candidates).”

If you pass both culture interviews at Airbnb and you’ve already passed every other part of the process, you’re in. If you have a split decision, with only one culture interviewer giving you a thumbs up, you get one more culture
interview. If that additional interviewer agrees you should move forward, you move forward.

Otherwise, you’re done with the process and not eligible for the position. That means they pass on highly qualified employees who aren’t the right culture fit. It takes making tough decisions like that to effectively build and maintain a
culture that is going to be a true competitive advantage. 

Interactive Video: Norwest Talent Summit: Highlights

This article was originally published HERE.