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When you read about new companies, especially in the startup space, one of the topics you’ll see over and over again is this idea of “culture”.  To be sure, it’s an important topic and can be a true distinction (think Uber vs. Lyft).

Two Inc. magazine articles came through my feed this morning and a mashup of the two topics they addressed seems appropriate.

The 1 Company Culture Rule 99% of People Are Afraid to Follow but Should addresses the idea of the importance of creating a company where employees feel like they are part of a team.  

“... we're past the novelties. What people want out of their 40-hour work weeks goes so much deeper than "keg Fridays" and late-start Wednesdays.

What employees want is to be part of a team.

There are a handful of words that have been abused by today's startup world. I'd argue "team" is one of them.

’Let's build an incredible team. We want people who want to be part of a game-changing team. You have to be a team player.’

Unfortunately, most people don't know the first thing about building a team--in the sense that all parties truly want to represent the company they work for.”

Here’s the spoiler from the article (in case you don’t want to read the whole thing...):  People want to know that their involvement matters.

“Too often, employees are given too little credit. Especially young employees. Their lack of experience is seen as a setback instead of an opportunity.

But by treating them as "just another cog in the machine," they begin to internalize those feelings--and next thing you know, you've got another "team" of lackluster players.

The same happens in sports, and in music. If the coach or conductor treats its players as objects who are there to simply perform a task, then that's the culture you create.

But it's the coaches and conductors that empower each member to know their value, and to nurture that value over time, that ends up building an unrivaled culture.

People want more out of life than just a paycheck.

And in this massive culture transition, it's going to be the companies that understand how to treat each and every employee as a person worth nurturing that will ultimately become the most successful.”

I think the author (Nicholas Cole) has a great insight here. Much of today’s workforce is mobile. They’ll work a number of jobs and even change careers entirely more than once.  A ping pong table in the break room and playing mini-golf in the office on Friday afternoon can be great stress relievers, but they don’t address the deeper Issue of meaning and involvement.  This is even more true for remote workers who can’t participate in the in-office fun.

Five thoughts on building a genuine team culture

The other article that I read this morning is by Joshua Spodek - 6 Lessons I Learned Teaching Leadership With a 4-Star General at West Point.  This is an article I’d encourage you to read and think about. These five thoughts were inspired by the article and the lessons in leadership from General Lloyd Austin.

1. Be Intentional

Company culture happens whether you plan for it and shape it or not.  If you’re scheduling your “culture” meetings for 6-12 months from now, you’re just too late.

2. Be Prepared

Doing anything well requires preparation and there’s no substitute for it (Read the article)...

3. Be a Servant

If you’ve read my blog at all, you know this is something I really believe.  Leadership is servanthood.  I like how General Austin approaches this.

By "them," I mean the people you're serving. General Austin began each meeting with the others, inviting them to share their identities and stories. He engaged them on what they cared about.

Some of the people we met were Colonels and faculty he'd long known, but some were Cadet Candidates--basically high school students. Whatever their rank, he treated them like human beings.

I can only imagine what it feels like as a Cadet to meet the nation's 200th 4-star General and for him to take an interest in you. I have a feeling they'll remember it. I have a feeling they'll perform better for it.


4. Be a Listener

Yes, you’re the boss. Yes, you’re experienced. Yes, we should know our place. Except, that’s just a recipe for the wrong culture! Building a great team means that everyone should feel they can contribute. Certainly, not every opinion is informed; not every idea is actionable. However, when people who are lower on the hierarchy have no voice, they’ll soon see their contributions to be unimportant.  

If a 4 star general can listen and genuinely engage with high school students, I’m pretty sure you have the time to do it as well.  And speaking of “engagement”...

5. Be Engaged

Earlier in my career I asked to weigh in on what the culture should look like for the company I was working for at the time. I put together some detailed thoughts and sent them over. And then... silence. I tried several times to engage with the person on the topic. I was ignored (literally). I didn’t think my suggestions were all that radical... they were pretty well accepted principles. If Cole is right in his hypothesis, then this is exactly the opposite of team building and positive culture shifting. Nothing says “you don’t matter” like being ignored.

Creating a company culture isn’t something you do over a week long off-site.  It isn’t something that you write up in a document, put in a binder and require everyone to read once a year.  It’s the day to day, consistently applied set of principles that reflects your deeply held company convictions.

People want to know their involvement matters.