Why I treat our company culture like a product

Many people think that culture means perks, like lunches, great health benefits, games and a fun office environment. But none of that matters if your actual culture – the health of your company – isn't strong.

If a company is a machine, then culture is the grease that keeps it running smoothly. A machine that's poorly greased will grind to a halt.

The first step as a CEO is to believe that culture is important. That means believing that it drives results, even if the ROI is hard to measure.

>See also: The three steps to building an innovation culture

There are stacks of studies about how happy, engaged and loyal people produce better work. We've all seen them, but we often take it for granted or forget to do anything about it.

To truly believe that culture is important means letting it have a seat at the table at all times. Our employees are here on their own terms, and I respect that.

What does it mean to treat company culture like a product? Here are six steps.

1. Define what you want your culture to be and have guiding principles

This is like a mission statement for your product. It's important to have your core values in place from the beginning, especially when you grow and when your employees no longer sit in the same room.

You need a way to consistently communicate what's important. Our eight core values haven't changed since we created them in 2012. Even today, every employee – new and old – knows them by heart.

2. Hire better

This is one of our core values, but it also ties into the culture as product theme. This doesn’t only mean hiring the best and brightest – it’s also important to hire someone who can get along with others.

I interview every person with the goal of identifying red flags. Since I ask everyone the exact same interview question, I can tell a bit more about who they are and how they'll work with others based on their answer.

3. Collect feedback

We are constantly collecting feedback from our employees about our culture, just as we would for any product. You will eventually have a bug that breaks something.

It could be an individual causing problems or a broken process, but you need to have mechanisms for collecting feedback so people feel comfortable letting you know what's wrong.

We run two major culture surveys per year and smaller surveys when we feel they're needed. I also do quarterly ‘fireside chats’ to give people one-on-one time and really voice their concerns. Our people department checks in with new employees after they start to hear how things are going.

Culture will turn sour if you don't nurture and evolve it – the same way an unattended product will go stale and no longer not meet its customers' needs.

4. Address problems

When a person is causing problems, you need to give them direct feedback to fix their behavior. If they don't fix it immediately, you have to make the difficult decision to part ways. It doesn't matter how smart they are if they can't play nice with the team.

Much of addressing a problem means really listening. At SpareFoot, we have weekly team meetings with the entire company where we share the good, the bad and the ugly.

We share and talk about everything, whether it's feedback from our surveys or our revenue. We give an update on where we are compared to the previous week, and what we are going to do in the upcoming week to improve upon that.

5. Take action

You must address problems head-on and take action to support the health of your culture. For example, a few years ago I learned there was frustration around our hiring process – employees felt that it was unorganised and causing a lot of stress. I took the feedback seriously, addressed it directly, and introduced a new hiring process.

Now, before a job can be posted, a hiring manager must complete documentation that details not only the required technical skills, but also the soft skills and personality we are looking for.

Once this is approved, every person participating in the interview process submits questions they will ask. This is visible to everyone involved at all times.

After the interview, everyone gives the potential employee a score. If anyone has given a low score and the hiring manager wants to make an offer, they must talk with the person and get their feedback or buy-in before making an offer.

6. Keep culture top of mind

Treating your culture as a product is a mindset. It's something I believe CEOs should be constantly building, investing in and improving. There must be accountability from the CEO down that allows us to discuss problems and work towards solutions.

>See also: How to instil a data-driven culture

It's important to me that everyone at our company feels they have ownership and stake in the business. That's why one of the longest-standing SpareFoot principles is to never use titles as an excuse to make someone to do something.

I expect our leaders to show that they're committed to the business by caring about their people and treating everyone as equals.

Culture is not just about talking the talk. It's about walking the walk.


Chuck Gordon is CEO of SpareFoot

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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