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3 secrets to building culture and engagement that lasts

6 min read


This post is part of the series “Workplace Morale,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

Any founder will tell you they want to build a company they can be proud of. That starts from the very foundation. But as companies grow, they often neglect culture, focusing only on engagement and morale when they surface as problems. And then leaders wonder why culture continues to be a challenge and why so many employees continue to be unhappy and unengaged. The solution? Let’s start at the beginning.

Whether you’re a new company beginning to grow, or a company in need of a culture reset, morale and engagement can only come from a strong foundation. Think about where you live — no matter how great the curb appeal or how beautifully decorated it is, without a strong foundation, it can’t support a happy, healthy family.

The recipe to building a culture that lasts? Invest in the foundation, reinforce that base, and hold the builders (your leaders) accountable for keeping it strong. It’s not easy, so at exaqueo we help companies get there. Here are our three secrets to making it work:

1. Invest in culture from the beginning

Building and scaling a company, or, resetting culture requires investment — not just money but time and commitment. The secret? Get your leadership team on board, focused and physically together to commit to that foundation. At exaqueo, we bring leadership teams together for facilitated sessions to build a core set of company values. Leaders can’t copy other companies. Instead, they have to come up with their own deal breakers for behavior — what’s at the core of how they get work done?

Then, we teach them how to develop what we call work rules. This is the real secret here — values give you a lay of the land. But they don’t provide structure. For example, let’s say customer service is a core value. What does that look like in practice at your company? Quick problem-solving (i.e. Wal-Mart) or longer-term relationship building (like the Ritz-Carlton)? Those are two different ways to deliver on the same core value.

When companies define their work rules, they are making it clear what behavior looks like in practice and how great work gets done.

Potential talent has a better sense of the organization and leaders can better evaluate candidates against culture fit. At Victory Marketing Agency, they learned the hard way. The Inc. 5000 fast-growing company struggled with engagement, retention and performance before making a commitment to investing in culture.

“It took stepping back and firmly defining our culture and work rules to make sure everyone understands how we operate,” says founder and CEO Vinny Antonio.  “[Our] defined culture and work rules clearly lay out ‘How We Achieve Victory.’  There is no room in a rapidly growing company like ours for anyone who cannot fully buy in to our beliefs.  Now there is no gray area. “

Reinforcing the foundation of culture

Once you make your culture commitment public like The Container Store or Pittsburgh-based startup 4Moms, you can’t stop there. My second secret?

2. Reinforce the culture every chance you get to strengthen morale and engagement.

At ORS Partners, a recruiting services company outside Philadelphia, quarterly all-hands meetings are held to discuss the “state of the company” and revisit the core values manifesto on a regular basis. Employees that have joined since the last quarterly meeting ceremoniously sign the manifesto and make their commitment.

We also encourage clients to adopt rules and guidelines that make living the values easier. And we do ourselves too. For example, at exaqueo, “we don’t make silly mistakes” is one of our core values. And we have a rule we call TSOE: which means there are two sets of eyes on any deliverable that goes out to a client. It saves each of us from making those silly mistakes or blaming each other.

At Victory Marketing Agency, Antonio was skeptical about rules at first:

“Being an entrepreneur who took the leap into business ownership in my 20s, I was never the type for rules and all of that corporate stuff. After exaqueo came into our office and did some background research into what was lacking in our organization my eyes were opened. I was wrong. The majority of employees want and love rules.”

Reinforcement also means you have to pull your values through in everything you do. Buffer, a tech company focused on social content management, raised eyebrows when it made all team salaries public. But one of its core values is transparency — so the company wisely chose to deeply reinforce that foundational commitment to keep employees engaged.

The key is pulling that value through everything you do. Once you make a commitment to be transparent, for example, employees will expect constant transparency and become disengaged when they don’t have that experience.

3. Hold leaders accountable

The final secret? Morale and engagement are best demonstrated from above. The entire leadership team has to be aligned and accountable every day. Otherwise, employees won’t buy in. Some of the strongest patterns of disengagement I’ve seen come from companies where each of the members of the executive team, when asked independently, describe the culture differently.

But even when aligned, accountability is the real secret sauce here.

Terry Williams , seasoned entrepreneur, venture capitalist and CEO of ORS Partners stands firm on accountability. They make it practice to make sure that all projects — no matter how large or small — correlate to their values and work rules.

“At ORS, only project and initiatives that align with our core values move forward,” says Terry. “Everyone remains accountable.”

At Victory Marketing Agency, holding leaders and employees accountable meant they lost a few employees who didn’t fit. “But we got more out of those who were all-in with us and the transformation has been significant and measurable,” says Antonio.

In the case of accountability, measurement is also crucial. We encourage clients to measure leader and employee alignment to the culture.

Reward employees when they are aligned and show them the door when they’re consistently not.

Wherever you are in growth and scalability as an organization, it comes back to regular, rigorous focus. As often as companies focus on financials, customer growth or product evolution, they can’t neglect regular, consistent focus on culture.

The proactive commitment to culture and engagement and that constant focus ensures you’re not solving big morale and engagement problems. Instead, you’re avoiding the problems in the first place.

Susan LaMotte is the founder and principal consultant of exaqueo.