This article was originally published on 15Five.
Twenty years ago, a company’s culture was something to scoff at. To many, it meant that you were soft and weak in the dog-eat-dog business world — a world where everyone worships the almighty bottom line, and only the strong survive.
Today, culture is seen by many as the most important aspect of a business enterprise. It is the glue that keeps employees working as a cohesive unit, and in some cases will distinguish you from competitors. Company culture is so important, that to preserve it Jeff Bezos just offered any Amazon employee $5,000 to quit their jobs.
How much is your company culture worth to you?
Clash of cultures
I began my career before I really understood anything about values and culture, and I left the first company I started solely because of cultural differences. Without knowing anything about culture, I intuitively asked interview questions related to matching cultural values. If I felt a good fit and a positive interaction, I hired the person.
I eventually created this beautiful bubble of a team within the organization that I really jived with. They were trustworthy, high-energy cooperative people, but there were issues and conflicts with other employees and tension with my co-founder who hired them.
Then I read an article in Inc Magazine that explained it all — you can’t have more than one culture within the same company. I shared the article with the CEO and co-founder, and the same lightbulb went off for him. The outcome of that conversation was my decision to leave the company.
As much as I wanted to grow my team, it would never mesh with the one my partner was building. Their values were not wrong or bad, just different. Had I understoodthe importance of cultural values, that would have been the first thing I would have looked for in a business partner. We had connection and synergy, but values were misaligned.
Protect your interests
According to Time, Amazon’s CEO just announced “what has to be the most counterintuitive personnel policy in corporate America today: If an employee isn’t happy working at the online retail giant, they can earn up to $5,000 just for quitting.” Amazon’s offer is a radical one, but one designed to preserve their most cherished assets — employees who are aligned with culture.
Making voluntary departure a reasonable and even profitable option makes sense since letting go of employees can be a tricky proposition. Firing a well-liked employee can be damaging to morale. They may not leave gracefully, poisoning the minds of others on the way out the door.
Disgruntled former employees may even seek some obscure legal justification for suing you, like constructive termination. A prospect that could cost you financially or devolve into a public relations fiasco, forever damaging your brand in the eyes of today’s ever-more conscious consumer.
But Amazon’s main motivation here is to preserve their fast-paced culture by weeding out those who are not committed. They borrowed this idea from Zappos, who they acquired in 2009 for close to $1 Billion. Amazon bought more than a profitable company, they bought a set of contagious ideals that they implemented throughout their enterprise.
Energy is contagious
Zappos is not a shoe company. They are a customer service company that happens to sell shoes. Customer service depends on people whose attitudes and very nature include humility, honesty, and positivity — values at the core of their corporate culture.
Paying average wages and offering mediocre benefits, they regularly score high on the ‘best places to work’ lists. According to Time, when Zappos began offering their employees $1,000 to quit, that was a money saver. Disruptions to corporate culture would have been much more expensive than paying workers to pursue a career elsewhere.
Amazon followed their lead, offering employees money to leave and limiting employment opportunities to people who really want to be a part of who they are and what they do. Those people are not motivated by money, but by the values and purpose of the company.
The culture at Zappos is quite unique, as is expressed by their #2 value – Create fun and a little weirdness, or #3 – Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded. When narrow-minded, low energy people are allowed to infiltrate, they can spread like a cancer within that organization. A few thousand dollars to preserve the foundations of an extremely profitable company sounds like a bargain to me.
The money-saving option
At 15Five, we have developed a less expensive way to preserve company culture and values. Rather than paying $5,000 to have someone quit, we offer a tool where managers pay $5 per month to get valuable positive feedback from an employee. We use our tool internally and ask questions like “What’s a way you’ve lived one of 15Five’s core values this week?” This keeps values top-of-mind and also exposes areas where people need more growth and support.
We’ve repeatedly heard from our customers that after several weeks of using 15Five, it becomes quite clear which employees are disengaged. This can lead to a one-on-one conversation with them and then corrective action. At that point they can write a check for $5K if they want to, but at least they know the truth about how an employee feels about the company and its culture.
Photo Credit: mtellin
What unique tactics have you used to retain your best talent? Please leave a comment below.
This article was originally published on 15Five.
It’s 4:45 AM. I run three miles to meet the rest of my college rowing team for practice. We push off into the dark and barely unfrozen river, eight rowers guided by one coxswain to steer and coordinate the power and rhythm of our strokes. As we start to row, water splashes off of our oars and freezes mid-air. Hundreds of tiny, unforgiving icicles hit the team as we align and become one unit of purpose-driven movement.
Years have passed and I now row a different boat as an entrepreneur, but I’m still just one person working in concert with an entire team towards a common goal. Our tools have transformed from oars and muscles to computers and minds, but the team’s success still depends on three main factors: the full engagement of each person, alignment of purpose, and leadership’s visibility into every aspect of the team and the competitive landscape.
We don’t all give 100% all the time. Much has been written about this recently, since sporadic engagement or active disengagement runs rampant in US companies — a problem that costs millions in operating dollars and could eventually cost you your company.
An interesting phenomenon occurs when rowing as a team. Eight people are all pulling simultaneously, but you have no idea whether each person is giving it their all. You rely on and trust in the fact that every other team member is pulling his weight and pulling with each stroke as hard as he can. The level of physical exertion is astronomical, and intense discipline is required to manage your own limits. Every fiber of your being is screaming at you to stop.
Just like in business, we are inclined to trust that everyone is fully engaged. However, a disengaged colleague may be putting in the hours and appear like they are pulling hard, but in reality it’s just a pantomime. Whether in a boat or at your desk, you could take a few light strokes and nobody would know. But if just one person lets up, it can cost you the race.
Appearances can be deceiving and many leaders are doing little more than guessing about employee engagement. Without asking direct, regular questions you have no idea what is going on. Engagement in work, as in rowing, is based on trust and relationship. So, even if an employee is transparent about feeling disengaged, conversations, trust-building and a strengthening of the relationship are necessary to get to them back on board.
All your ducks in one row
No matter how engaged everyone is, without alignment you will fail. Gold medal winning Olympic rowers and championship college teams have sync in every bit of momentum; forward, back, even the precise timing of each oar hitting water. The goal is to row as one being, individuals in perfect harmony with everyone else in the boat.
Alignment does not just happen overnight. It’s as true for business as it is on the water. In my company, we start by hiring the right people who are philosophically aligned with 15Five’s purpose and an authentic desire and drive to contribute to that end. We then use our own product internally to calibrate each team member to specific team goals and larger company-wide initiatives.
For example, on a cultural level, every week we ask “What’s a way you have lived one of our core values this week?” This keeps the team consistently focused on our shared values, the driving purpose behind why we do what we do. It keeps our raison d’etre top of mind and our actions on track with where the greater compass points. Sometimes “Keep it simple” is the ultimate reminder as we dig into the product roadmap and other times “commit to customer success and delight” is something that transcends well beyond the support team. It’s a way of sustaining a fresh integration of our higher purpose with our everyday work.
We also ask specific questions like “How are you feeling? What’s the climate of the group?” and “What are the challenges you are facing? Where are you stuck?” Distractions, challenges, and the ensuing frustrations compound and push the team out of alignment. The longer they remain uncommunicated, the greater the misalignment.
Seeing is more than believing
The leadership role of providing visibility is absolutely necessary, because the team cannot do it themselves. If rowers start focusing outside the boat, they becomedisengaged and fall out of alignment. My coach always said “Don’t look over and don’t look up. Keep your head down and row your own race”. There is a strong temptation to look at competitors to see how far you have to catch up. The moment you take your attention out of your boat and stop rowing your own race, you’ve lost.
Visibility relies on trust. The coxswain (that guy yelling “stroke, stroke” in movies but never in real life) has his eyes on the entire river. The rest of the team has absolute trust in him to communicate what is coming up ahead. A little behind or a little ahead of another boat? The coxswain calls a “power 10″ or “power 20” to shorten or widen the gap. Everyone uses a bit more of their reserves. Blow past a competitor at the right moment and you can blow them away psychologically, but waste your precious energy at the wrong time and say goodbye to the trophy.
As a leader, I have to row my own race as well. “Competitors” frequently surface, but we don’t spend too much time looking at what they are doing. Instead, we keep focused on what we believe will best serve our customers and remain dedicated on building a team that can deliver on that vision.
Photo Credit: Bill Youtie
Ever experience a moment at work when every stroke was in sync or a project where the boat capsized? We value your feedback, leave us a comment below.
“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
– Steve Jobs
The train of innovation continues to hurtle forward, never ceasing and always picking up speed. We now have the tools and ingenuity to create almost anything we can conceive. In turn, every mind-blowing new design inspires us to conceive in ways we never thought possible.
The more complex the world becomes, the more beguiling are the simple inventions. Just this month I have seen videos for an invisible bike helmet, and the first 3D sensor for mobile devices. Not to mention that I am ‘typing’ this post by simply speaking into my iPhone and watching as my words are magically converted into text.
It’s the little things
One of the early American “mountain movers” was an inventor by the name of Whitcomb Judson. He was awarded 30 different patents, mostly for his pneumatic steel railway system. You have never heard of it because it failed miserably, and was replaced by the widely popular electric street car. The many highly technical devices he designed and patented for the railway were just too impractical to be produced. Judson would have died in virtual anonymity had it not been for his invention of a much simpler piece of equipment, dubbed the clasp-locker. You probably know it by its modern name: the zipper.
The zipper’s simplicity makes it one of my favorite inventions. It is highly effective (most of the time) and used on countless products. Not to mention that delightful zzzip sound from where it derives its name. But while a zipper operates simply, it took a lot of time and thinking to conceive. On the surface it performs beautifully, disguising the invisible and complex technology that makes it function.
There’s always a better way
“When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.”
– Steve Jobs
Few of us stop to consider how a zipper works. We simply pull it one way or the other and it opens and closes. In fact, we only become aware of the device and instantly curious about its zippy little secrets when it malfunctions. And so we press on to improve an imperfect design and ask, “How do we make this simpler, faster, or better?”
That question spawned the second iteration of 15Five. We launched version 2.0 several months ago and essentially started from scratch. We rebuilt using a far more complex technology that supports an elegant and seamless user interface. Faced with unique challenges at every step, simplicity was our mantra. That core value fed our persistent focus, our problem solving, and the creation of new systems for implementation and collaboration.
Challenge is the Mother of Invention
15Five began with a simple idea and a very lean team. But as more people began using the software, the simplicity of our product and our organization became harder to maintain. Our workforce grew and we soon needed systems to coordinate teams of people. The more successful we became, the more systems we needed to create.
Having standards in place can feel constricting and antithetical to cultivating a courageous team of unfettered creativity. We needed to establish simple rules and regulations that remained flexible, while keeping structure. This is a fine balance since too much flexibility without parameters creates either spinning wheels or paralysis.
We wanted to function smoothly without implementing complex hierarchies and team structures, so we created flexible rules and explained them to avoid the frustration and resentment that often results from bureaucracy. We built atrustworthy team and had conversations, not policies. We created a culture of freedom and accountability by recruiting only responsible, high performing talent. We continue to encourage freedom and flexibility as our organization grows in size and complexity.
The razor’s edge
I am reminded of Occam’s razor which states that all things being equal, the simpler explanation is the correct one. We like finished products that are simple in form and function, but we also appreciate how they are created. We develop new systems and methods to create our products and we constantly improve them. Systems and products co-evolve. Better systems create better products, which implore newer systems and even better products result.
As we become entrenched in the daily what and how of our product, it can be difficult to approach the familiar in a novel way. We can throw money at our problems (hire the best talent, license the most expensive software), but in the end the best recourse for solving problems is throwing ourselves at them. We dedicate our focus while maintaining a space where imagination can flourish. Pretty soon the answers seeks us out as well. It’s that simple.
How do you maintain simplicity as you grow? Leave us a comment below.