Purpose, Not Ping-Pong Tables, Builds Strong Company Culture

04 Oct 2016, Dave Kilimnik

Creating a workplace that buzzes with genuine happiness and productivity is about much more than superficial office “perks” like coffee bars, rock walls, and casual Friday. Here are some basic concepts that can help you establish and nurture a healthy corporate culture.

Purpose-driven Productivity

Most people are motivated more by meaning than money.  Of course, we all need to earn enough to meet our financial needs, but there are diminishing returns on financial compensation after a certain point. Humans are wired to want a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. I’m obviously not the first person to point this out — there are books (like this excellent one by Aaron Hurst and this equally great Daniel Pink tome) and a whole lot of research on the subject of purpose as a key component of a positive workplace. The good news for companies is that a sense of meaning doesn’t have to come in the form of altruism — it can be created with business goals, too. And guess what? Research has proven time and again that purpose-driven employees improve the bottom line, too, so it’s a win all around. CEOs don’t have to save desert tortoises from extinction, or make the first solar-powered passenger plane to help create a sense of meaning. It can come from being “the best” at something, too. The quest for the best starts with enthusiasm for the work, and that message needs to start at the top.

Enthusiasm and Engagement

It’s important for leaders to be enthusiastic about work. Part of leadership is being able to see through to the other other side of a minefield that you are about to lead your team across.  You may have a combination of anxiety and enthusiasm, but as a leader your enthusiasm and ability to describe an end-state and make it real for your team is critical to getting everyone on board. You could extend that to say that “everyone is a leader in an organization” and therefore everyone should have that level of enthusiasm, but while a nice sentiment, in reality that’s generally not the case. People are entitled to feel how they feel. Commitment is more critical than enthusiasm for everyone in the organization, but enthusiasm matters most for the group’s explicit and implicit leaders.

Employees are engaged when they have a sense of meaning and also a sense of ownership on the outcome. Very few people are enthusiastic about serving the goals of another person and you can’t build a company with people who feel like they are butlers with no shared stake in success. A good way to get people working enthusiastically is just to reverse conversations and put the ownership back where it belongs. For example, if an employee approaches you about a strategy or a problem that needs solving for a given goal, account, or client, tailoring your response to reaffirm the employee’s ownership of the situation can go a long way toward building trust, and can indicate that you are available for advice but that they are ultimately in charge of their own destiny. Engagement and enthusiasm are inevitable when company leaders act in this manner.


The Monday Mentality

Monday mornings are dreaded by people with a J-O-B.  A job is something where you come to work, and get paid a fixed amount for doing a variable thing. If you kick ass, you get paid X.  If you slack off, you also get paid X. There’s no thrill to Monday because Monday doesn’t promise anything except a long week ahead. (We’ve all been there.) However, doing great work can make Monday mornings exciting. Doing great work denotes growth, passion, and upward mobility. If you do skilled work, you generally get rewarded in proportion to your effort and for delivering a particular result. A happy customer, a signed contract, a revenue target, an expertly executed project can all net growth for a driven worker. Rewards may not be instantaneous (and probably shouldn’t be), but a good employer will create an environment where a career path is clear and attainable, and where people are focused on goals and achievements, not the clock. When I wake up on Mondays, I’m ready to get in the game and do the work. I’m fortunate to be passionate about my career and that sentiment spreads around the office. I love Mondays and I know that my enthusiasm for starting a new week helps set the tone for others.

Team Building and Retreats

Team building activities are very important, mainly because they build trust, which goes a long way toward turning strangers into at least collaborators, if not friends. People build trust when they blow off steam together and share stories and feelings. They build a history of shared experiences between team members. To really to know someone is to know their history, their background, their outside interests, and also to hear how they think about work situations and what conclusions they reach about shared struggles. Some executives love structured activities like ropes courses and the like, but I have always gotten the most out of simpler social experiences around breaking bread and sharing drinks.

Retreats for company leaders matter and I am a big believer in consistent review of tactics. I get my leaders together on a weekly basis to talk tactics and immediate action plans. Opportunities, operational issues, revenue, costs – every week like clockwork. It’s incredibly effective to do that, without the existential overhead of asking how each item maps to an overall strategy. But the strategic plan for the company cannot emerge from the daily battle of the workplace. For that, the work does need to pause and strategic issues need to be explored. This has to be done without the pressures of clients and staff, in a place where people can enter a different mindset and let their minds flow in order to focus on broader issues affecting the business on longitudinal timeframes. Retreats are a great way to get there and doing them in a fun or beautiful place also creates a nice reward and a memorable shared experience.

Company Culture and Business Models

Company culture is only important if it’s tied to a business model. For example, if the success of your business model requires collaboration between designers and engineers, then you should take a good look at what cultural elements align with that. Would it be better to have a “work anywhere” model for remote employees or a “come-to-work” model? Pretty likely it would be a model where people physically come to the office since that’s how collaboration and teamwork are maximized. This is much different and much more important than building a culture around buzzword-type values such as “high integrity” as these sorts of aspirational values are pretty generic and non-defining. I don’t know any businesses that have intentionally built a model based on low integrity!

Integrating purposeful and meaningful company values into your business model is essential. It enables success and allows a business to scale because there is a an optimized system in place that is demonstrated daily and that is implicit in people’s actions and choices.

David Kilimnik is CEO of Hero Digital.