10 tips for creating an award winning company culture

TRC Group has recently been recognised as an ABA100 winner for Employer of Choice in the Australian Business Awards.  In 2013 we were announced as the 12th best place to work in Australia by BRW Best Places to Work and in 2012 they named us as the 10th best place to work in Australia.    I’m often asked about how we went about creating an award winning company culture within a lowly little recruitment company.  How did we create a culture akin to that found at companies such as Salesforce, Red Balloon Day, Atlassian, and Google?  Winning awards isn't everything and it doesn't mean that TRC’s culture is necessarily better than anyone else, not everyone needs the affirmation of winning awards like we do :) But we do have a genuinely good culture, that culture does drive higher performance and we did build this culture carefully and deliberately.  So here are 10 tips that I picked up along the way to becoming an award winning employer of choice.

Be honest and open

Transparency is key.  Here are two questions for you.  Firstly, if I asked anyone in your business would they be able to tell me your profit/loss for last year?  If the answer is “no” then the follow up question is “why?”

If you work for a company and you don't know how much money they made or lost last financial year then you need to ask yourself some serious questions about why that is. Maybe they don't think you’re grown up enough to handle the information, maybe they don't trust you enough not to tell you , maybe they are trying to create a false reality or maybe (and most likely) they just have a very old fashioned way of thinking and are just dogmatically doing what everyone else does.   Maybe some people are trusted with this information and some aren’t.  Why shouldn't you know this?  What harm can it do?  A company that hides key information and treats its employees like children is not an employer of choice.  An employer of choice is open and honest when the news is good or bad.  Every decision has a context around it, and context is key.  Without the context how can a team understand a decision? Without information the team is being asked to trust the company even though the company clearly doesn't trust them.  I don't know about you but I don't trust anyone that doesn't trust me.

Every company has tough times, hell, we lost money last year.  But telling the team about it, admitting our mistakes, communicating where we had gone wrong, telling them what we planned to do to rectify it and asking for their help and trust at the same time turned the company around. It was their ideas, their work, their commitment that enabled that to happen..  We’ve now made back the money we lost and more and the team know that they were pivotal in that turn around.  We rightly share the pride in that together. 

Set expectations

There is a oft quoted Jack Walsh saying that goes  “I never fired anybody who was surprised.”  I’d take this even further and add “never promote anybody who was surprised”.  Being able to tell, almost without thinking, if you sit within one of three camps is critical to creating an amazing workplace.  The three camps are:

  • not performing as expected - change or move on
  • doing just fine - left alone to keep going
  • up for advancement - get a pay rise and/or promotion

The middle one is often forgotten but is probably the key one.  Do your team know if they are doing just fine, the point at which there is no more pressure for them to improve if they don't want to. 

Number 3 is also critical.  I’ll set you a challenge.  If an employee who deserves one asks you for a pay rise or a promotion you have failed as a manager.  Every employee should have clear expectations as to what they need to do to advance. They should know what that advancement will look like. Once they do it they should automatically advance.  There should be no shifting goal posts, negotiation on salary, begrudgingly half hearted training.  You should embrace the advancement.  If you begrudge it then you've foolishly set the standards too low.  Make it visible, let everyone see what happens when they perform to the higher level of standard you’ve set.  But also, never penalise someone for wanting to stay within the ‘leave me alone’ band -you need these guys too.

Do cool stuff

One of the most powerful ways of making people love where they work is by giving them things they can tell their friends about.  Nothing makes people happier in their work than having friends and family telling them how lucky they are.  If you are going to provide your team with benefits spend some time thinking through where you can get the biggest bang for your buck.  Make sure some of the benefits you provide are the kind of things your employees will talk about.  This will depend on the demographic of your team.  Parents of young children will tell their friends about childcare assistance or family health cover, 20 something single hipsters wont.  Make sure you have benefits that people in your team will want to tell their friends about.

The same thinking goes for incentives.  Spending time thinking about interesting incentives will double the value you get for your money.  Picking the first thing you think of will inevitably lead you to thinking of an incentive that everyone else has also thought of.  Make it original, interesting and something on the boundary of your team’s comfort zone and they will tell their friends, they will get the “wow I wish I worked there” response and your employee satisfaction levels will rise.

Create a winning culture

Orchestrate wins, lots of wins, but make sure you set the bar high

Get rid of culture vultures

You know you need to, just do it.   That person who popped into your head when you read the words “culture vulture”, you know, the one who makes loads of money so you try to ignore the negative impact they have on your culture?  Get rid of them now,  they're doing you more harm than good.  Spend some time with a lawyer, do it fairly, do it firmly but do it soon.

Don’t give them what they want, but give them what they want

Henry Ford once said “if I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses”.   If you ask your team what they want they’ll give you some fairly bland ideas well within their comfort zone.  For recruiters that usually means the pub or a nice lunch.  But these things don’t get talked about or remembered and they don’t set you apart from other companies.  You need to do something your team wouldn't normally do, something a bit original.

On the flip side you have to make sure they’ll enjoy it.  Going over the top (parachuting out of a plane dressed as elvis, operatic recitals, paint-balling, walks in the botanical garden , monster truck shows etc) work with certain types of teams but fall pretty flat with others.  Pick incentives and benefits that your team will like but wont expect.  Make sure they are aligned with your company values (If your company is built on the values of respect and equality then a company wide trip to a jelly wrestling bar probably isn't going to work).

Ask for help

Get your team involved in your journey to become an employer of choice.  Ask for their ideas, input and criticism.  If you’re asking for feedback be prepared for what you’ll get.  Needless to say an employer of choice wouldn't sack someone for giving negative feedback when asked.

Diversity is not “political correctness gone mad”

In business your greatest challenge is getting the right people on board.  If you get the right people on board then everything else will (usually) work itself out.  Hiring people for your team without recognising your own selection bias means you lose out on good people.  Build a system that hires people based on ability and cultural fit regardless of creed, colour, age, sex, blood type, shoe size etc etc.   A genuinely good system will result in a genuinely diverse team.  If you don't have a diverse team (have a look around, be honest with yourself, your team makeup will tell you the pervading bias within your selection process) then you don't have a good system and you are losing out on talent. 

Consistency between what you say and what you do

You’ve got company values right?  Maybe you’ve got them up on the wall?  Great.  You and your management team have to be the living embodiment of these from the second you wake up to the second you fall asleep, all the time, forever.  If anyone on your management team isn't then change your values or change the manager.  If you struggle with them then they aren’t your values, they are just a bunch of words that mean less to your team than they do to you.  Living company values shouldn't be a struggle for your team.  If it is then they aren't your values.  If you don't sack people who don't live your values then they aren't your values.  If your decisions aren't made using your values then they aren’t your values. 

Consistency isn’t just critical for values.  If you say something and then act contrary to that then you don’t just negate that statement you negate the credibility of EVERY statement you make. 

To create a great working environment you have to figure out who you are, what your company is about and then hold true to that no matter what.

Treat people fairly

High performers, low performers, new starters, prospective employees, visitors, customers, suppliers, people making complaints, people who have wronged you, the cleaners, ex-employees, partners and friends of all the above - treat them fairly and with respect all the time.  Your team will see how you treat others, this will create the culture of your company.

Being an employer of choice doesn't fix all your woes, quite often it adds to them, but an engaged workforce is a more productive workforce.  Having awards to hang on the wall isn't the be all and end all but it does help you attract better talent which in turn does give you an edge over your competitors.  

This list is in no way an exhaustive list but hopefully there are some key takeouts here for you.  Let me know your thoughts.