This article was published on July 15, 2015

The secret to building a successful company culture

The secret to building a successful company culture
Mackensie Graham
Story by

Mackensie Graham

The idea of “company culture” is many things—call it the recipe to success, the key to retention, the promise of profit or even the secret sauce. The elements of what company culture is made up of can be incredibly obscure, while also being contrastingly unique.

Company culture wears many different hats depending on the company in question. Google—a constant among the top-ranked companies to work for—with its sprawling Googleplex campus, shared bicycles, on-site medical and legal professionals among an endless list of perks, is difficult to compete with when wooing the best of the best.

Google even employs a Chief Cultural Officer dedicated to maintaining and growing its culture centered around employee satisfaction, open communication and no hierarchy.

Consider Nike’s tight ties to product and innovation secrecy. A healthy dose of hush-hush around a never-ending conveyor belt of newness mixes with an affinity for corporate history. Such a culture is proven by the Winnebago “conference room” parked smack dab in the middle of the Innovation Kitchen room.

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Why? Nike lore says that Phil Knight, the athletic giant’s co-founder, first sold shoes out of the back of a similar trailer. Bill Bowerman, Nike co-founder, ruined a waffle iron in the seventies in an attempt to make rubber soles; this vintage appliance is on museum-like display at HQ in Beaverton, Oregon.

A strong company culture is many things, but it is not an imitation game. Now is the time to take a good hard look at where your business has been, where it is now, and what is direction you want it to go. Ask the following questions: what is at the core of this company? Who are the people wanted and needed to maintain and evolve the organization? What do these people need to achieve our common goals?

Culture will come about whether intentionally guided or not. It is best to set an outlook for how that culture is going to thrive for the positive as opposed to allowing it to turn into the dark alley of negativity, complaints and responsibility shirking.

While each company culture is indeed special, there are common strains of success. Consider the following guide for how to establish and maintain an extraordinary company culture worth working for.

Don’t try to be anything you’re not – make it unique to your company

Many companies have a mission statement, though not all align their internal and external efforts to work toward this mission. The first step to building a strong culture within a company is to do what you say you will do.


Whatever the mission—to make healthcare more accessible, to feed the hungry, to provide expert financial advice, to assist athletes of all levels to achieve goals—take steps that allow your employees to work toward that mission wholeheartedly.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos—also known as the gold standard company in customer service and a highly rated, attractive company culture—said, “Chase the vision, not the money.” There is truth in that.

Keep your company authentic to its mission and your brand consistent; make this mission of maintaining dependability a cornerstone to all growth that follows. That way company culture will grow intentionally and organically around what’s important—the purpose of the business.

Once defined, sizeable growth can continue inline with those core values. Virgin CEO, Richard Branson, said of the 300 plus companies Virgin has had a hand in, the leadership ensures that the new company fits within Virgin’s ethos. Ultimately he boils it down to making a positive difference for the greater community and world.

Remember: what works for your neighbor in Silicon Valley or your online competitor may not work for your employees. Company culture thrives on originality.

Hire don’t Fire

The door is open and so is the role. Time to bring on a new recruit, but with a small army of degree-toting, experience-wielding resume-holding applicants in the queue, how do you pick the best fit? After screening for the basic skills needed to do the job, take a true look at the prospective hire’s personality.

Consider the example of San Francisco-based Eventbrite. The event-ticketing platform experienced exceptional growth and process millions in ticket sales monthly. Eventbrite is consistently voted one of the top places to work in the Bay Area and they have grown to have office in Berlin, Dublin and Mendoza (among others) by hiring the right people from the beginning.


A standard they uphold is the “no asshole” rule, offering questions that test humility during the interview process.

Tom Gimbel, CEO of the staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network, insists upon interviewing applicants by evaluating their investment in close personal relationships. If the interviewee has a interested knowledge in what their friends and family are working on and doing with their lives, they are perhaps more likely to forge an interest in what their prospective colleagues will be doing; they will add value by being engaged.

Evaluate the strengths and weakness in your organizational fold. Where does the leadership fall short? Applicants with different experiences and expertise will offer a needed dose of diversity. As tempting as it is to hire clones of yourself, differences will accelerate the company as a whole.

Taking the time to outline what type of people your company is to be built on, not just what they can do, is a worthy investment. It will save the pain of having to fire someone who diverts from the company culture. That being said, note who consistently is demonstrating actions against the core of your culture; acknowledge the difference between individuality and opposition.

Adopt a People First Attitude

Of course your company needs to turn a profit to maintain a viable status. There’s plenty of pressure to do so from shareholders, boards of directors, venture capitalists and your customers, but all of those come second to your employees. Adopt a people-not-profit-first attitude to acknowledge and treat your employees as they are your greatest resource…because they are.


Invest in research and development of your employees. What challenges are common in the area you live in? If a majority of employees have young children, what can be done to relieve some of the stressors of parenting? What does health and wellness look like to your employees? Developing ways to remove barriers and ease burdens of day-to-day life will allow your employees to focus more of their time, attention and skills to work.

Build the company around life—what makes us human—instead of asking your employees to build their lives around work. Remember that all of us want to make a difference and serve a purpose in our roles, when we feel supported by others we are more empowered to achieve.

Break down the Cubicle Barriers

Open office plan or not, people like to access each other and the information that they need to get the job done. If people feel like departments or titles do not separate them, they have the opportunity to feel more connected to each other, and therefore more of the company. Unity is a key word here.

The more colleagues have the chance to know each other as people, not just email addresses, the better. This teamwork begins with the leadership refusing to be isolationists.

Culture is the guiding compass for employee interactions and business decisions. There is a cohesive bond innate to the people that share a culture. Establish this culture of “teamwork makes the dream work” through persistent, consistent actions. Always observing, your colleagues will learn from what is said at company talks, meetings and written in the handbook but more often it is learned from experiencing behaviors.


Consider an open door policy or weekly meetings where employees can ask questions of different heads of the company. Take the first step by taking new employees of all levels out to lunch. Organize “healthy happy hours” where employees can go rock climbing, jogging, take a yoga class or do Zumba together. Get to know people as people, not just their title.

Open the Communication Doors

Read through the Glassdoor reviews on Twitter as an employer and a common theme appears quickly—communication. Like “company culture,” communication is often tossed out, usually with modifiers like open and closed. Easier said than acted upon.

Take a cue from Twitter. Twitter’s mission is stated clearly: To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.

Credit: MOSO IMAGE /

Yes, the platform itself is about free speech, and that translates into internal interactions within the tech company as well.

A mutual understanding is important to all team players at Twitter. Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter, stated previously that he liked being challenged in his role at the social network. Transparency and information sharing is encouraged between Twitter employees.

Find an engaging outlet to communicate in full the plans for the future of the company. With a common goal defined employees can better embrace the power in their present roles.

Invite Innovation

Change is going to come. If you have not already come to terms with it, begin to do so now. With change comes great potential but also great challenges. Often choosing to do things as they have been done would be the easier route. Refuse this path. Invite innovation and change your company culture.

Find a way to incorporate acceptance of change within the organization. Whether it is encouraging a certain amount of time each week to work on side/external projects, having a monthly “show-and-tell,” or having different teams teach others a skill in a 101 course, ensure that your employees are always striving.


Highlight those who are working/building/making something awesome. Encourage employees to share their skills at the company outside of their full-time role. Is someone on the board of a local charity? Invite the office to take the afternoon off to volunteer. Is someone a certified yoga instructor? Invite them to teach a noon-hour Vinyasa flow.

The best ideas are often inside your company. Give the bright brains you’re investing in the welcoming platform to speak up, speak out and initiate projects that may better the organization as a whole.

Whether your company is long established or just starting up, it is never too late to refocus on what your unique culture looks and feels like.

Read Next: Where’s the top talent hiding? A tip to recruiters

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