Now that the paltry economy is (somewhat) picking up and employee retention is again an issue, companies are scrambling to find a new, unique sell to attract and retain top talent. This new sell comes by the name of “company culture”.
Company culture is like big data- everyone talks about it but few people can really define it or use it in a way to make it work for them. Most companies have a list of values they’ve objectively picked out or maybe, they ignore the pretense of having a company culture altogether. Thankfully, I work in a field that embraces the pursuit of company culture and employee individuality. Beer runs are common in digital, as are networking events and silly team bonding days. But the longer I’ve worked, the more I’ve realized company culture is not any of the things we’ve been lead to believe. It is not: all expense paid parties, Friday catered lunches, brand new iMacs, matching logo American Apparel hoodies or an awesome action-packed Instagram. That’s because company culture isn’t something that is material. It can’t be bought, or given to employees.
As a lover of stuff (egregiously materialistic) it was easy for me to quickly fall in love with the tangible things companies had. For example: one of the companies I worked with had especially cool birthday cakes, personalized bottles and pens and shiny new iMacs. Amazing I thought- perfect. This is the company for me. Look at how much they care and all that attention to detail. But behind the glimmering, immaculately designed walls and beautiful, customized cakes was a toxic culture and broken infrastructure. From the outside looking in- you’d never know. From the inside, an extravagant birthday cake and personalized water bottles could not keep you satisfied all the other 2,000+ hours of your work year.
It is generally accepted in the digital community that an intrinsic set of shared common values and goals for the company are what define it’s culture. I can’t help but agree. Here are the three things I believe make up company culture:
There shouldn’t be a divide between accounts vs. digital vs. C-suite. Everyone should be in it together, and everyone should be trusted with the truth. When people leave companies, usually it is hushed and done discretely. When executives make mistakes, it is also swept under the rug. You should have faith in your employee’s desire to stay in the company, your ability to lead and present to them frequent opportunities to grow and move up. The employees I got along with the most I admired because I knew they were great at what they did- and it didn’t matter that maybe they were less extroverted than I was. Likewise my personality probably annoyed the hell out of them but we were always able to come together and pump out great stuff. I’ve also worked with people who were spectacular “cultural fits”, but were incompetent and made the team grow weary. Having mutual respect for each other’s work and capabilities fosters an amazing sense of team work and trust- one that doesn’t require teammate bonding days or activities.
One of the companies I worked with had one goal only- to sell. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t a good product, or if they couldn’t do it, they needed to sell it. The truth is, they knew how to sell. And there’s nothing WRONG with selling in and of itself- marketing is admittedly a glorified version of selling. But I wanted to believe in the product I was selling, that it was good and I could be proud of the finished product. I couldn’t, so I became instantly disenchanted. My values didn’t align with the company’s, and I struggled to feign enthusiasm. You can’t put your effort in to something you don’t believe in and doesn’t inspire you. Having a similar goal and vision for the company is crucial to employee motivation.
This is important. Having not worked with not one but two companies that mostly hired within their family and friends, it is nearly impossible to not feel resentment when they can leave the office, have disproportionately bloated salaries and come and go at will. Most of these companies I left because I realized there was no room for me, or anyone else at the top. Having a team that all earns their place fosters respect and motivates employees to do their best with the good faith it will be recognized.
I think companies like Google with their well-known employee benefits and perks are part of what started this obsession with “culture”. In retrospect, think of all the top talent even Google themselves loses. Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, this is just to name a few. I could think of few companies that could afford the luxuries or salaries Google can provide to its employees. That’s not to say Google isn’t an amazing company to work for or is flawed in some way- but if having the best stocked kitchen was the motivating factor for employees to stay, needless to say Google would never lose a soul.
I think where most companies fail is that they use the facade of “company culture” as a PR tactic, and not a tool for employee growth, happiness and development. The truth is, company culture is something that few people may see or recognize from the outside. If you have to be obsessed with the pageantry of it all, you’re probably doing it wrong.