3 Elements to Creating a Company Culture…Deliberately

“Company culture” isn’t just a buzzword: It describes the way a group of people work together. You can do a few things to encourage one that’s positive. Here’s a few I’ve learned from experience… and from listening.

Every team has its own unique culture, for good or ill. Even in the same organization, it might be awful to work in that department but this one is completely different, and people jockey for an opportunity to transfer to another project for reasons that have nothing to do with career visibility.

What makes the work experience so different? People often point to the project manager or other executive, but that isn’t always the issue. A company (or team) culture dictates how people behave and how people perform. It also reflects where the company is going, what its core beliefs are, and what its values are. Obviously, that drives the decisions the business makes in small and large ways.

Yes, leadership can make a difference, and a lot of attitudes do come from the top. Certainly, working for an inspiring boss is startlingly unlike working for a jerk even when nothing else about the job changes.

In my experience, company (or team) culture often is a matter of conscious decision-making. I’ve seen businesses pay close attention to the processes by which the team bonds, the organization operates, and its values are demonstrated. The goal of creating a trusting, cohesive team might be approached with “fluffy” things like installing foosball tables, arranging weekly beer bashes, or scheduling “team-building exercises.” Or it may be deliberate actions that have long-term repercussions.

For example, I recently spoke with someone at a startup that had decided not to hire telecommuters: They felt that it was important to company culture to have everyone work in the same office. My disagreement with the sentiment doesn’t change the premise that it’s good for project managers to contemplate how their business decisions affect the team culture and thus the organization’s success.

After looking at a lot of examples – my own as well as those of colleagues – there seem to be three elements in deliberately creating a healthy company culture.

Make people comfortable with the team’s goals.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea. As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” – attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince.

We’re grown-ups. We understand that organizations need to make money, and they also have goals to aspire to. So share information with your teams – not just what we are doing but why we are bothering. People respond to requests much better if they understand why it matters (to the boss, if not the team-at-large). Understanding why also makes team members better at coming up with alternatives that address the goal rather than the task.

So share more of the strategy behind projects, changes in direction, or project tasks. It goes a long way towards making people feel they are part of something – not just a worker. Give people feedback, too: Knowing specifically how your work helped someone else is a wonderful motivation.

Demonstrate that you trust and appreciate your team members.

One way project leaders can deliberately create a positive team culture is to envision the relationships you want the team to have (with one another and the organization at large), and then work backward to identify what puts those values into action. In most cases, that starts with trust and respect.

Where better to turn for examples than sports, where teamwork is fundamental – both on and off the field? Derrick Hall, president and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, set a goal to inspire players and employees by trusting them to make decisions without constant management oversight. He puts the trust first; he doesn’t wait for people to “earn it.” In an article published earlier this year, Hall said, “With our company, the customer doesn’t come first. The employee comes first, and when we treat our employees well, they in turn treat the customers well. We recognize our employees; we respect our employees; we promote our employees.”

One way Hall maintains focus on employees is by giving season ticket holders “Wow Cards.” Fans then award these cards to any employee who made their experience special. Rather than the team policing its game day employees, Hall has created a “virtuous circle,” giving fans an active role in recognizing employees for their “Wow” experiences. Employees so recognized earn one of the rotating seats on Hall’s 18-person President’s Council, alongside executive management.

I saw the same thing in action a few weeks ago, when I stayed at a resort hotel for the third year in a row. The hotel was recently acquired, and it was evident that the already-friendly staff had become even friendlier. I quizzed one employee about what had changed. “The new owners treat us staff so much better,” he said. “It’s easy to treat guests well when you’re happy yourself.”

Start with the premise that your team members are trustworthy. Only a few are not. Yes, you’ll be burned occasionally, but that pain is offset by the devotion of those who appreciate your respect. This isn’t just in atta-boys. One way to demonstrate that respect for-real is to stop tracking vacation time. (It works for Netflix.)

When people feel trusted and respected, they’re more willing to take reasonable risks that can benefit a project. Empower your team to make decisions without needing to consult management. Will people make mistakes? Sure. That’s when you-as-manager demonstrate your coaching skills, and help them understand why it was the wrong decision. This is needed less often than you may expect.

In other words: If you want a culture of trust, then trust people. It’s amazing how often people live up to that expectation.

Help them trust one another.

A long time ago, I worked in a successful tech company. It was only five years old, but it already had become a brand that every businessperson recognized. One super-successful product led its sales, but new versions were under way for additional platforms, and the company was investing in other product areas. I worked on one of the secret projects (its code name – we had more code names in those days! – was No Comment). Our offices were in the basement offices, down a long hall from another more-visible department, which – among other things – was under fire for missing several ship dates.

The project leaders had very different personalities, but they had one thing in common: They made a deliberate effort to get team members to care about one another and to trust each other. That meant spending time together that was not necessarily about our work tasks. In fact… it meant food.

Both teams became defined by their food culture. The team down the hall set themselves apart by becoming devotees – snobs, really – when it came to popcorn (the finest!) and coffee (grinding and brewing their own, which was a remarkable thing). When my team leader recognized that we’d have to work through lunch due to deadlines, she began to bring in Chinese food for the team to share. Somehow, with her encouragement, the 25-or-so of us all ended up ordering the specialty from the Mary Chung restaurant in Central Square Cambridge. Like, every week. (I still have dreams about that Suan La Chow Show soup.)

It wasn’t the soup that made the difference. It was the fact that when the food order arrived, all of us would sit on the floor together and talk with each other. About cooking, and travel, and… oh yeah, work. By the end of lunch we usually had several ideas scribbled down on the white board. Which, of course, was the project lead’s intent.

Nor is it a surprise, really. Gathering together over a meal is an ancient form of community process, as people sharing food appreciate each other at a profound level. Nourished bodies and relationships pave the way for better collaboration and higher quality work. Consider how many projects are driven by pizza!

Even aside from the food benefit: At the time, I felt valued because the project manager was making an explicit effort to “take care of her people.” That made a difference, even if the soup had not.

What else have you seen project managers or leaders do to create a positive team culture? What worked, and what didn’t?












Esther Schindler

Esther Schindler has been writing about computers and business topics since the early 1990s. You’ve seen Esther’s byline in prominent IT publications, such as CIO.com, IT World, and IEEE Spectrum. Her name is on the cover of about a dozen books, including most recently The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twitter Marketing. You can follow her on Twitter @estherschindler and circle her on Google+, where she will keep you up to date on software trends, her cats, and baseball shenanigans.

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