The Internet has no shortage of opinions and rants on business culture, but few posts will tell you how to actually change culture. My goal here is to skip the "kumbaya" stuff and give you three practical ways you can improve your culture and motivate employees.
Five years ago when I became CEO of Widen Enterprises, a marketing technology provider, we were transitioning from a pre-media company to a software company. For a 60-year-old business, this was no simple task. We made the transition, and over the past year we have been refining the software culture.
Whereas startups begin with a blank slate, existing companies have the challenge of pursuing new paths with 20, 40, or 60 years of history influencing the current environment. To work, cultural transformation must be deliberate in such cases.
If we boil down all the culture advice out there, we can identify three goals and ways to achieve them that are worth a deliberate effort:
To make culture an asset, you have to convert concepts from your mission statement into reality. To accomplish this, begin by changing your physical environment.
At Widen, we wanted our employees to collaborate more effectively, but we had an office that discouraged teamwork. The cubicles, long hallways, separate departments, and closed offices were collaboration kryptonite. So we changed it.
I wrote this article from a long table in a 10,000-square-foot room where we make marketing technology happen. I don’t have a separate office with a mahogany desk, black leather chair, and leather-bound books, and nor do other executives. We inhabit a space designed around the principles of collaboration and sharing. We participate in random conversations, get involved, learn new stuff, and interact with people who used to be cordoned away on the opposite side of the building. Does it get noisy? Sure, but we still have a few private spaces available, and employees rock noise canceling headphones when they want to lower the volume.
So start with your space, and redesign it to encourage the values and behaviors you desire.
If you tell your employees to take risks and then fire people for messing up, you’re sending mixed messages. If you don’t ever talk about failures and acknowledge them, you’re unintentionally spreading fear because no one knows what happens if they fail.
We solved this dilemma at Widen by hosting a company-wide fireside chat called "Celebration of Failures" where we literally talked over every single failure in recent company history. We laid out what we did, what went wrong, why this happened, how we could prevent it and identified the upsides of the failure.
We don’t want employees to stop failing—we just want them to fail better. But we all come from a culture that values being right. You get A’s for right answers, not high fives for failures. So to actually make failure safe, you have host a slightly odd and unprecedented event that celebrates failures; you have to deliberately crack the idea that right is good and wrong is bad.
Knowledge sharing is a lofty principle until you crank its engine with real, institutionalized events. By institutionalized I mean regular, named, encouraged, marketed events that have a life of their own and actual impact. They have to feel like customary events and become long-standing traditions.
But why limit knowledge sharing to Widen? Some of our developers also joined a Meetup group called MadJS, which has over 550 members in Madison, Wisconsin. We’ve hosted 60 JS experts at Widen headquarters for presentations and discussions. We’ll be hosting another event for the local Amazon Web Services group in June. Events like these make our developers and our community better.
We’re not afraid to give knowledge, and we also participate in events where we get more knowledge. Following these examples I have shared, other developers, marketers, and designers have started classes, given their own fireside chats, and expanded their networks. Knowledge sharing is part of Widen culture because we need to elevate each other to transform the marketing technology world.
If you create a culture document or mission statement, the work of culture change is just beginning. The fun and the rewards come from physical changes and real events that convert words into reality. So get your values, mission, vision, and culture down, then get up and do something about them.
—Matthew Gonnering is CEO of Widen.