Great Company Cultures Are Not Accidents

Great Company Cultures Are Not Accidents
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I’m continuously surprised with all the mystery surrounding company culture. Great company cultures aren’t accidents, they aren’t mysteries. Great company cultures are systematic and iterative. Great company cultures are worked on day in and day out by collaborative, humble teams. If you want to build and maintain a strong company culture that results in engaged, happy employees who stick around, start here:

Step 1: Read Good to Great by Jim Collins

In Good to Great, Collins followed 1,435 companies over 40 years. He analyzed the performances of the 11 companies that outperformed the rest over sustained periods of time. His advice: follow a three step process:

  1. Get the right people on the bus
  2. Get the people in the right seat
  3. Decide where the bus is heading

Collins discovered that having the right people on your team is a prerequisite for being great. If you don’t have the right people, everything else will be difficult.

With the right people on the bus, improve team communication.

Too often, companies obsess over clarifying their growth plans and strategy right out of the gate. This is a mistake. First, have a vague sense of your vision and work like hell to get the best initial team members on board.

ProTip: Always seek to hire people that are smarter than you.

Step 2: Top Grade

In order to interview, hire and retain the best team players, use the Top Grading process. It will save you a ton of wheel spinning and will help you make your hiring process efficient.

I’ve been using Top Grading for the past 6 years and it works.

And always heed the advice of Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa:

“Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience. Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind.”

Step 3: Have a plan but don’t worry too much about clarity right away

Know what your core values are. Define success. Define failure. And then, don’t worry about every last detail right away. Teams need to know where they are heading and what they are aiming for. However, you don’t need to stop moving forward while you figure it all out. It’s ok to build the plane while you are flying it. This is scary. It’s very scary. Yet, if you try to button down your strategy, you’ll find yourself in analysis paralysis. You have to learn to be ok with some level of uncertainty in your plans.

To continuously gain clarity without slowing down, spend a day or two with your leadership team every quarter to work on the strategic direction of your company.

Step 4: Use The Rockefeller Habits

When you are ready to add clarity to your plan, let the Rockefeller Habits guide you. The Rockefeller Habits is a ten step checklist that builds a strong team. It starts with team trust and builds from there. Without trust, nothing else is possible.

Step 5: Encourage experimentation and learn from failure

Make innovation a required part of your culture that is celebrated. At Stride, we have quarterly Toast to Failures at our all hands meetings. We go around and share a failure we had during the past quarter. We all clap and celebrate the learnings. It’s so cathartic!

Step 6: Give everyone a real voice

At Stride, we hold monthly Lean Coffee. We get together for an hour. We brainstorm topics to discuss as an entire company. No topic is off limits - compensation, benefits, working hours, anything.  We each get three votes and go up to a whiteboard and tick off which topics we want to debate. The topic with the most votes gets debated for 30 minutes. And then, 2 Striders take action items and are responsible for bringing the issue to resolution. We report on our updates at the next Lean Coffee. This is such a powerful way to hear what’s on everyone’s mind and to create a safe space for open and honest conversation.

Step 7: Empower every employee to tell every other employee “I Disagree”

The newest member of the team needs to be comfortable telling every other employee, including the CEO “I think you’re wrong and here’s why.”

  1. Trust. Our leadership teams trusts each other. And, we spend a lot of time building upon that trust. We get to know each other, have heated debate professionally, solve complex problems. Without trust, nothing is possible.
  2. Humility. I aggressively protect Stride's 5 core values, and am willing to be wrong about everything else. No one Strider is better than any other Strider, we are all in this together.

These steps won’t guarantee you a great company culture, but they will certainly help.

Debbie Madden

Debbie Madden

Founder & Chairwoman

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