Talk to enough successful CEOs about how they run their companies, maximize profits and satisfy shareholders – and you hear a drumbeat of familiar management wisdom across virtually all sectors:
- Hire great people and keep them.
- Resources are rare – use them wisely.
- Move quickly on the best and brightest ideas.
- Innovation is key – so stay one step ahead of the competition.
But Adam Bryant, who interviews CEOs for his “Corner Office” column in The New York Times, says it’s corporate culture that’s really worth a fresh look. Why? A workplace’s culture plays a critical role in a company’s lifecycle, especially among today’s tech start-ups.
“The best of the tech start-ups grow quickly and have a keen sense of the cultural challenges that arise as they add layers of people and management,” said Bryant. “When Dominic Orr, CEO of Aruba Networks, a wireless tech company, told me, ‘We aspire to be the largest small company in our space,’ I thought, How? How do the best companies stay as quick and nimble as innovative start-ups, even as they expand?”
The culture is a matter of style and choice, of course. For some companies, culture means putting a foosball table in a corner of the break room (if you can fit it) so employees can blow off steam at lunchtime – while for others, it’s a written code of conduct that articulates treasured values.
One thing is for sure: Whatever the culture, it matters. “A successful culture is like a greenhouse where people and ideas can flourish,” said Bryant. “It’s where everybody in the organization feels encouraged to speak frankly and is rewarded for sharing ideas about new products, more efficient processes, and better ways to serve customers.”
Here are three key aspects of a successful corporate culture, as shared in an interview by Bryant, whose new book is Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation:
A successful corporate culture fosters an environment of trust. “Trust” may seem a buzzword – but trust is critical among people in the workplace. “Compared to decades past, there’s so much change in the world,” said Bryant. “Every company, every industry, is being disrupted. The pace of change is so fast that employees are increasingly looking to their leaders for cues and action.”
He added, “Employees sense that very quickly, the company they’re working for could take a turn – and their livelihood, their job security, could be at stake. They need that extra level of trust. They have to be able to believe in what their leaders are doing, saying and planning.”
John Duffy, CEO of 3Cinteractive, a mobile platform firm, recently added this question to an employee survey: Do you trust John Duffy?
“Not only was Duffy asking his people if they trusted him to take the company in the right direction and provide growth, prosperity and opportunity – he was asking if they trusted him as a person,” said Bryant. “It was a gut-check question – one of those that if you have to stop and think about the answer, well, it’s probably no.”
Duffy, who described the survey experience as “intense,” received more than 90 percent “extraordinarily positive responses,” Bryant reports in his book.
A successful culture allows employees to make mistakes - as long as there are lessons learned. “What works against innovation is the fear of making mistakes. Then, if employees make mistakes, they don’t want to admit them,” said Bryant. “That cuts against taking risks and trying new things.
“Some companies will start a program and keep it alive for five years because nobody wants to kill it,” he added. “Others will say, ‘Look, we tried it, it didn’t work, let’s not beat ourselves up about it. Let’s kill it and use our resources for something else.’
“That’s where you start seeing speed in innovation. The best cultures share a sense of teamwork and resolution. They say: ‘We’re all going to make mistakes. We’re not perfect. The key is how quickly we learn from our mistakes and stop doing the things we shouldn’t.’”
A successful culture ensures that all employees are treated with respect. Think this is pie in the sky, just words on a page? It ain’t necessarily so.
“I talked to David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, about the impact of being treated with disrespect by colleagues,” said Bryant. “He explained that the experience fires up the same part of the brain as if you were sticking your hand on a hotplate. You tend to forget physical pain over time – but if you’ve ever been humiliated by a boss in front of other people, you remember it like it was yesterday. And every time you remember it, it’s as if you’re experiencing it again.
“If managers don’t treat their people with respect, those employees go to work in a defensive crouch in order to protect themselves,” said Bryant - hardly the way to get the best out of people.
Even more compelling in today’s tech reality: “Everybody’s fighting for the most talented engineers, the best coders. CEOs need to ask themselves, How do I create a great work environment where people want to stay? If you treat workers badly, they’ll turn to those ten job offers and grab one of them. Companies must be more thoughtful about their people. Besides – the generation coming up is not going to put up with anything less.”
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