What’s required to make a company culture great? In many ways, building a company culture can feel like a vague, amorphous, unquantifiable thing that’s impossible to get your arms around. But it’s not. It just takes grasping what the elements of a transcendent culture really are. And just as importantly, understanding the illusions getting in the way of genuine growth.
Ping pong tables and foosball are fun. Open concept floor plans with hanging chairs, endless bowls of chocolate, and snack closets are trendy and cool. But they’re also just distractions. Depending on the employee, they may get someone in the door. But alone, they’re not going to keep them.
Great culture runs deeper than that and, not surprisingly, so does great talent. When it comes to meaningful company cultures, it’s not the superficial we respond to, but something far more primal. Great companies are built on elements that speak to us on a far deeper, more meaningful level than trendy floor plans and momentary gratification ever could.
Understanding and implementing each of these Seven Fundamental Elements is the key to transforming your culture, your company and your future success.
1. Safety. We’ve all heard the adage, “blood is thicker than water.” When you talk to people who work in strong cultures, that’s how they feel about the team they work with. In a work culture, feeling safe or unsafe physically, mentally, and emotionally colors how we feel about everything. If we want to build a strong, productive culture, our job as leaders is to create a place where our people feel safe and where they can contribute openly. That doesn’t mean building safe rooms for employees who can’t handle tough feedback. On the contrary, it often means delivering brutal honesty and uncomfortable truths, but done in a way that leads with love and a signal that we’re in this together and, importantly, that we share a future together.
2. Vulnerability. It’s not a huge stretch to say that, culturally, vulnerability has long been associated with weakness. But nothing could be further from the truth. When leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable with the people they lead—not to have every answer, to ask for help, to make mistakes and own up to them—they’re not exposing weakness. They’re exuding authenticity and that’s what people are drawn to. Vulnerability paves the way for cooperation and trust. The relationships you foster with your team and your ability to move them forward is in large part predicated on your ability to be genuine with them without the fear of being taken advantage of.
3. Purpose. In any organization, purpose isn’t a me orientation. It’s a we orientation. Purpose is the thing that gets us from where we are to where we want to go. It seems easy enough. But too often, purpose comes in the form of some top-down edict announcing grand intentions without the actions to back it up. Day in and day out, purpose isn’t delivered with big, demonstrative actions but rather with the hundreds of small, vivid signals that say, “This is our vision,” “We’re in this together,” and “You’re an important part of our future and our success.” Is that what your leadership is saying to the people who work for you?
4. Belonging. Belonging is primal. And no matter how introverted any of us may be, belonging isn’t optional. It’s required for life and everything that goes with it. Part of building a meaningful, productive culture means creating an environment where people feel welcome and accepted and part of a tribe that appreciates them and has their back. Belonging isn’t about fitting in or acclimating. It’s about genuine connection. When people feel a bond and a friendship with their co-workers, they stay. They work harder. They contribute more. When they don’t, they either leave (bad), or they stay and fester, unhappy, unconnected and unfulfilled (worse).
5. Creativity. Every great culture embraces creativity. Talented people need an open-minded commitment to push for something better, smarter, cooler, newer. They want a culture that’s fresh and exciting and something they can be an intricate part of. And they have to make “What if?” and “Why not?” an intrinsic part of their dialogue and their culture. Creativity can be a game changer. The question is, are you willing to open the box?
6. Connection. Imagine a place where we foster inclusion and diversity and where we show empathy and genuine concern for the people we work with. A place where we’re transparent, open, and when necessary, apologetic. A place where we live our values, lead by example, and place ethics above all else. Connection happens when people are included, when they’re trusted, when they’re invited to be part of something bigger than themselves. We have it in our power to create that kind of environment. And when we do, we won’t just attract super talented people who are determined to make us better. We’ll connect with them. We’ll thrive with them in a loving, supportive, collaborative environment. And we’ll actually hang on to them.
7. North Star leadership. North Star leaders set the purpose and direction of the company. But that’s not where it stops. The best leaders are involved leaders. They’re constantly learning, reading, studying, thinking about ways to improve the conditions, and providing guidance and support to team members.
Exceptional leadership hinges as much on how we are, as who we are. That’s why the most effective leaders view heading their companies and brands as a journey and not a destination. North Star leadership is about understanding the privilege and responsibility you’ve been given. It’s about working to develop the clarity of thought and the vision to inspire your team to do what no other company has done before. It’s about building a company culture that will not only attract the best talent, but keep them.