Company Culture: What It Is and How to Build One You Love
by Jay Wilkinson CEO of Firespring
When you hear the term “company culture,” what comes to mind? An open office space? Catered lunches? An unlimited vacation policy, perhaps? Or fun offsite events? Like most people, you probably hear the word “culture” and think “perks.” Totally understandable, because the two things are often confused or used interchangeably.
At our Firespring headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, we’ve created a fun work environment with a pool table, shuffleboard and comfortable couches in a space we call the Firepit; we offer free beer and soda in the break room; and we have a gigantic slide in the middle of the building. I’m not going to lie, it’s all pretty cool, and I’m glad our team members love coming to work.
But those perks have nothing to do with our culture. While a game of shuffleboard during breaktime or a free beer after work on Fridays is awesome, they’re not the things that make people want to stick around for the long haul.
What keeps people coming back is an intentionally developed, well-maintained company culture, which is about people. It’s not about the perks or toys or cool stuff; it’s about people who are aligned with one another and focused on making an impact with shared goals and values.
According to the latest research, 70% of U.S. workers say they’re not engaged at work. That’s huge. When most people change jobs, it’s not to make more money—only 12% of employees blame finances for job changes. According to Office Vibe, 75% of people voluntarily leaving jobs don’t quit their jobs; they quit their bosses. We also know that 70% of millennials say that they would take less money for an interesting job that was fun—so clearly, work is about more than just taking home a paycheck.
This is all to say, there is value in creating an engaging, interesting and dynamic culture for your organization if you’d like to both attract and retain top talent. Your culture not only helps define your brand, it also helps you identify the type of people who should be part of your organization. It doesn’t have to cost you a fortune (you don’t have to cater free lunch every day, contrary to what you may have heard), but it does require putting some thought and brain power into designing a plan.
How are you going to get from point A to point B if you’re not where you’d like to be in terms of your organization’s culture? I can assure you, rolling the dice and hoping you magically end up with a dynamic culture isn’t going to happen. Great cultures happen by design, not default.
At Firespring, we’ve built a vibrant culture that attracts passionate team members and have been able to sustain it for decades now. I won’t say it was easy or that it happened overnight, but I will tell you, it wasn’t complex. It took some reflection, important discussions and time, but it basically involved these three steps.
We defined our values. I see both for-profits and nonprofits alike list the same type of values: “We’re innovative. We’re team players. We are passionate.” You know what? Those are not values; they’re virtues. They’re great! But they’re not stated in a way that allows people to live them out in a practical sense. At Firespring, we defined these specific values:
1. We bring it. Every day.
2. We have each other’s back.
3. We give a shit.
Excuse my language on the third one, but when we expressed our values that way, people got it. They embraced them. And they began to live them out in a practical way. Values don’t have to be complicated; they need to be applicable.
We hire to our values. Once you know what your values are, you can hire the type of people you believe will embrace them. At Firespring, we care way more about how someone will fit into our company than we do about how skilled they are. Why? Because we can’t change people after we’ve hired them. We can train and educate them, but we can’t change their character, and that’s ultimately what we value.
We live and celebrate our values. This step comes down to one simple thing: Repetition. At Firespring, we have a daily meeting; we refer to it as our Firestarter. For 11 minutes, at 11:11, every single day, we recap what’s happening on each team and recognize team members who are living out our values. We don’t waver on this, and we keep our values front and center, each and every day. That’s what it takes for them to sink in and become a part of the fabric of your culture.
If you’re wondering, “How do I even begin this process?”, let me help you out. These five steps will get you started on the right path.
1. Assign an owner. It might sound unnecessary, but your organization needs one person who is directly responsible for its culture. Of course, that person can’t build it on his own, but he can cast a vision and push everyone else in the right direction. This is ideally someone who is passionate about your organization and its cause and is willing to lead the process of identifying and defining your values.
2. Have leadership set the tone. Do you want to have a culture of teamwork? Then your executive team must truly function as a team. If you want “fun” to describe your culture, then your leaders will need to embrace that value as well. You can’t build an authentic company culture if your leadership doesn’t buy into the model you’re trying to create.
3. Listen to your staff and volunteers. Ask them often how their job is going or if they have any suggestions for improvements. Give them a tool for ongoing feedback and encourage them to communicate openly. Understanding what makes your staff happy begins with getting to know them better—and they are the ones who ultimately will define and carry out your culture in the long term.
4. Allow people to screw up. When an honest mistake is dealt with severely, it dulls people’s excitement for what they do and makes them fearful to try new things. This will breed a negative culture. On the other hand, an attitude of acceptance and positivity will encourage risk-taking and comradery, and ultimately, a positive culture.
5. Show each person how their job affects the bottom line. When people understand how valuable their jobs are to the overall success of the organization, they will naturally become more dedicated and committed. If they don’t, then it’s likely they’re not a good culture fit, and you may have the opportunity to find someone who is.
And last but not least, communicate. Always. As you evolve your values and begin to spell out what they are and how they matter, be sure every person understands them. Post them in your office. Talk about them in meetings. At events. In emails. Reward employees who advance your culture and be honest with those who don’t. As your organization grows, a culture that’s been purposefully and carefully built will help keep it on track, steer hiring decisions and prevent your company from spiraling into something you don’t recognize.
One last thought: Once you’ve created that dynamic culture you crave, don’t keep it to yourself—let the world know who you are and what you value. If you visit Firespring.com, you’ll see that our values and company culture ooze from every corner of our website. Our culture is what makes us distinctive, and that should be true for you as well.
Does your website reflect your values, a compelling mission, your culture—everything that makes you different and unique? If not, I invite you to explore how Firespring could help you do that in a way that’ll make a huge impact. The great news is, we’ve partnered with MNA to offer you significant savings on what could be your most important investment this year. Take a look to learn more about our partnership.
About Jay Wilkinson: Jay Wilkinson is the founder and CEO of Firespring—a Nebraska-based Certified B Corporation. In 2016, Firespring was featured in Inc. Magazine as one of the Top 50 Places to Work in America and has been listed on the Inc. 5000 fastest growing companies 7 of the last 8 years. As a philanthropist, Jay has raised millions of dollars for nonprofits. He spends half of his time helping nonprofit organizations leverage their mission and deepen their impact.
Jay has been among the highest-ranking speakers at conferences all over the United States for two decades and has informed and educated thousands of nonprofit professionals with his empowering messages. His TEDx talk on company culture has more than 1 million views. A graduate of MIT’s Entrepreneurial Masters Program, Jay has appeared on CNN and other national news outlets discussing the important role nonprofits play in the U.S. economy.