4 Easy Ways To Create A Workplace Culture That Doesn't Suck

A strong workplace culture is the heartbeat of a successful organization—so learn how to check its pulse.

Entrepreneurs fret over just about everything: marketing plans, product features, investor pitches, sales collateral, management team hires, company valuations, financial projections, cash balances. But an often neglected, yet critical part of success is the culture that a startup founder fosters and the key role that it plays in the company’s eventual success.

Culture permeates everything. It spurs innovation, inspires resilience, promotes collaboration, wins customers, builds a winning mentality—all key success factors to any business, let alone a nascent young venture.

Yet since culture is not something that can be easily measured, tracked or quantified in conventional terms (ever seen a balance sheet with an asset entry called "Culture"?) it’s often neglected or even dismissed as somewhat of a luxury.

But culture is something that grows within any organization whether you actively work to create it or not, so setting priorities for what’s important and taking an active role in shaping it is absolutely critical. Fail to pay attention and you risk the build up of a poisonous environment that can envelope the entire venture.

Here are four ways founders can help build a winning culture:

1. Write a Culture Plan
We have business plans, financial plans, marketing plans, sales plans, even office plans, yet very few founders ever sit down and articulate in writing the kind of culture they want to build around them. Writing a culture plan can help clarify to employees the key organizational values that the founder aspires to. It also guides behaviors that affect everything from the way a company treats its customers to key hire decisions.

2. Take the Pulse Often
You don’t focus on what you don’t measure. With my company, I created feedback mechanisms so that I would ensure I was always aware of company sentiment or shifts on morale or focus. Such mechanisms included weekly office hours where any and all employees could book time to chat with me; walking each morning around the office to informally chat with teammates; having occasional anonymous online surveys; putting feedback boxes around the office.

3. Foster Frequent Informal Interactions
Meetings are important though my experience tells me that newer or younger employees often feel intimidated or inhibited in these staged environments where hierarchy is obvious. I deliberately designed a large kitchen with long tables and promoted an environment where the company, regardless of role, sat and ate lunch together every day. These informal interactions not only broke down perceived hierarchical walls, but they also gave me direct engagement with younger employees and interns than may have normally felt intimidated to interact with the CEO. I found that basic human friendship is a more powerful motivator than a top-down command.

4. Mean What You Say
It’s not enough to say that culture is important. As leaders, founders need to continuously reinforce it. Culture and values ought to permeate everything from company benefits, office arrangement and design, employee reviews and, perhaps more importantly, in whom the company promotes, hires and if needed, fires. These clear signals help continuously reinforce a company’s priorities, convictions, and ambitions with respect to the culture it seeks to foster and promote.

Panos Panay is the founder/CEO of Sonicbids, the leading platform for bands to book gigs and market themselves online. He is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.

[Drain: Yanik Chauvin via Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • Jack Edwards

    When all things are the same the culture of a business wins customers and retains loyal employees. Unfortunately it can get lost in the day to day if its not nurtured and/or understood by every employer and employee alike!

  • diedra barber

    These are all such GREAT points...almost what i'd call "well duh!" moments and yet it's unfortunate how innovative these thoughts would appear to most. Culture will impact how decision making is formulated, and whether power dynamics will help or hinder an organization. A clear, monitored, transparent, safe and honest work environment can do wonders for efficiency, innovation and general employee well being. As a young entrepreneur with a focus and interest in how we communicate and interact with our human capital assets particularly within the non-profit and social justice enterprise sectors, I appreciate you taking the time to articulate these points. Well said and necessary. My favorite: "I found that basic human friendship is a more powerful motivator than a top-down command." Thanks for this!

  • Miguel A. Cervera

    Success in any organization is about people and their commitment to company's vision. Having a pre-established plan is a good roadmap to start with. Nevertheless, what really makes the plan effective is to measure its evolution with time and what you wrote on your last point: mean what you say. Congrats!

  • modupesanda

    If you ignore everything else, make sure you keep to the last point: Mean what you say. Integrity is the principle to live (or die) by. Nothing sends good employees running faster than employers that do not live up to their "code"