The Ultimate Guide to Company Culture Part Four: Listen, Learn, and Lean In

The Ultimate Guide to Company Culture Part Four: Listen, Learn, and Lean In

Welcome to the fourth and final installment in our four-part guide to creating a strong, sustainable, and thriving company culture! 

There’s simply nothing better than being part of a high-performing team. A team that has a shared purpose, the skills necessary to achieve the team’s goals, and teammates who root for each other is rare and special. We wrote about this at length in Part One: The Art of Building Great Company Culture, but a huge part of what makes a team really click is that je ne sais quoi factor — culture is more of an art than a science. You have to follow your instincts to a large extent, which requires courage, but results in a rock-solid team.

One of the foundational steps to building a powerful company culture is to create an environment that gives your team the resources it needs to succeed. Easier said than done. As we discussed in Part Two: Out With the Old, In With the Way Better, protecting and preserving a forward-thinking, motivated mindset is critical for any business. Another way of putting this is that you’ve got to give your team meaningful work, reward curiosity and collaboration, and support people who take calculated risks.

In Part Three: People Are  More Important Than Profits, we examined how critical individuals are to your business. And what is a team other than a collection of like-minded individuals focused on achieving shared goals together?

It all boils down to the team. A business that favors strong individual performers will never outperform an organization that prioritizes building strong teams. And without a company culture that buoys, serves, and unites your team, your company simply has no chance of survival. 

Respect the Generational Shift

When thinking about how to create a company culture that will serve your team well, one of the most important concepts to understand is that there has been a seismic generational shift in expectations among employees. For a company in this day and age to truly thrive, they need to pay attention to the evolving needs, expectations, and mindsets of employees and adapt accordingly.

Traditionally, the expectation was that employees should show loyalty to their employer and that sticking with a company was more important than personal fulfillment. Not so today — and for good reason.

“My dad couldn’t believe I was putting in notice thirty days into my first job out of college. Working for a Fortune 500 company during the recession was the safe bet, and going to a startup seemed like a huge risk,” says Kicksaw Co-founder Kyle Morris. “But the big company culture was wrong for me, and I hated being there. So I left. In my dad's mind, my reputation was at risk. He didn’t realize that that’s no longer the way it works.”

Kyle’s not alone in his actions here. It’s normal for folks to pursue the job that feels right for them, and the odds of an individual’s first job being that job are not super high. Changing jobs is not an indicator that someone is not an A-player — that’s a holdover myth from the 1950s that those bloated giants we talked about in Part Two want us to believe. 

Other holdovers from this outdated mindset include such soul-sucking concepts as leveraging guilt to get the behavior you want out of employees, forcing folks who could easily work remotely to sit in a cubicle just so that management can ‘see them working’ (for more on this topic, check out our Ultimate Guide to Building a Remote-First Culture), and our absolute favorite…mandatory fun.

Early in a person’s career, the breadth of experience obtained by working at several companies can give someone a huge advantage over an employee who only has a single data point for how companies operate. Employers need to recognize that changing jobs for the right reasons demonstrates drive and initiative, and that they should be open to those candidates. 

So, if an employee is hunting for the job that feels right for them…how are you setting your company up to be that job for them? How are you learning from what the generational shift has to say? At Kicksaw, we’ve brought in numerous employees who changed careers completely or repeatedly, and many of them have been top performers here.

Employees who feel obligated to stay with a business out of some misconstrued sense of loyalty or fear are likely not the best employees — they’re just there because that’s where they landed. However, employees who feel aligned with a company’s values are worth their weight in gold. The obligation is on the employer to prove that a worker’s time and energy are best spent with the company in support of the mission and culture. 

The modern employee craves a sense of meaning in their work, and that meaning is often felt most directly through the company culture. At Kicksaw, we see this demonstrated through our hiring efforts. Over 50% of our new hires come through referrals, and those referrals pay off big time. Referrals are essentially pre-selected to align with the company’s culture and often ramp up faster, as well as frequently outperform folks coming in cold. 

If you want the best talent out there, learn from our collective workplace journey and create the best culture. Easier said than done, but it really should be your North Star.

Use Your Ears to Listen, Not Just Hear

A telltale sign of a good team is that leadership seeks opinions and feedback from those outside the inner circle. Truly listening to the team creates learning opportunities that ultimately make the team stronger, and a good leader knows this instinctively.

As a company grows, it’s very easy for leadership to get stuck in their own executive bubble — the higher ups make decisions, pass those down, and expect employees to carry those orders out. But in order for any change to succeed, buy-in from those who feel the changes directly is an absolute must. Working to get that buy-in from end users is extremely time consuming, but it’s worth it. No one wants to follow leaders who tell them what to do, they want to follow leaders who lead them by building conviction. As one of our founders likes to say, “If you don’t have buy-in, you don’t have shit.”

Another trap that executives can fall into is believing that they have all the answers. With a track record of success under their belt, it is easy to fall into the default mode of making unilateral decisions. However, no matter how storied an executive, they are not as wise as the team. The team interacts with customers or your product on a daily basis and often has a better sense of what the ground truth is in any situation, which can be hard for executives to admit.

Kyle shares this perspective, drawn from his time with the US Army Rangers:

“I can’t tell you how frustrating it was for me, a low-ranking, enlisted soldier,  when it was obvious that folks at the top didn’t have a clue what it was like at the bottom. If a general had a question, they asked a colonel, who asked a major, who asked a captain, who asked a clueless lieutenant. The information, filtered as it moved back up the chain, didn’t give higher-ranking officers the opportunity to make informed decisions. Our best solutions often came from experience with real-world problems solved by the people who faced them, not from a general too far removed from the fight to understand the problem in the first place. 

“I held onto the memory of this frustration when founding Kicksaw. Right from the start, Kenny and I were adamant that we were creating a company with a culture that encourages open communication across all levels. We sought unfiltered feedback directly from our very first consultants. There’s value in listening to what folks in the trenches have to say — being an executive doesn’t make you smarter than anyone else. It just gives you a different vantage point. You need to listen to everyone at the company, which is more than some insincere ‘open-door policy.’ Don’t just listen to your teammates’ words. Hear what they’re saying. Take the time to understand what your team is telling you, because your team is smart. They know what your company really needs because they are the company.”

In Part One of our series on company culture, we discussed the importance of authenticity, and that comes back into play when considering the differences between listening and hearing. Giving someone the opportunity to speak is not the same as listening to what they have to say. If you’re going to give your team the option to provide input, as you definitely should, it can’t just be something as dismissive as a suggestion box or the pressure-cooker, “Does anyone have any feedback?” option at the end of a company-wide meeting. 

To truly give your team the respect it deserves, you’ve got to listen and learn from what they’re telling you. Create an environment where sharing hard truths with management is expected. At Kicksaw, we do this by making sure that all of our leadership is just as available for conversation as any other member of the team — Kyle and fellow Co-founder Kenny Goldman meet with every new hire, and they, as well as the rest of Kicksaw senior leadership, are only a quick Slack chat away. We also maintain anonymous feedback channels and make a point of answering tough questions that come in this way in front of the entire team. We’re open about the state of the business, maintain a library of documentation meant to make it easy for folks to find what they’re looking for,  and regularly update our team on performance stats and other data that give them a holistic view of how we’re doing, especially when things aren’t going well.

Take time to understand your team’s struggles, and do what you can to anticipate their needs — this is the key to not only creating great company culture, but to thriving as a business.

Teamwork truly does make the dream work. Prioritizing and valuing what the team is communicating to you is one of the most important tenets you can build into your company culture. Hearing what the folks on the ground have to say about what’s working for the company, as well as what’s not, will give leadership the information they need to grow the business and deliver incredible value to their customers.

No matter where you start from in your business strategy, you are always going to arrive at this conclusion. All roads lead to the team.

Your Ultimate Guide to Company Culture

In summary, there’s no secret formula or hidden menu option for creating the ideal company culture for your business. There are no shortcuts. 

There is, however, advice from folks like us who have been down this road and learned a thing or two we’re eager to share.

Approach culture-building as an art form. Be true to who you are, and don’t try to just copy what others have done — this will lead to mediocre results at best. 

Do whatever it takes to preserve and foster a spirit of innovation for your company. Without it, your culture and your business alike will wither and die.

Prioritize people over profits — you cannot have the latter without the former. Your people are your company, and they’re the ones who will create profitability.

And finally, listen to what your team is telling you. This is the best thing you can do. Your team knows what your company needs, and your team can take your company to heights you never dreamed possible, but only if you hear what your team has to say. 

Building a company culture is an exciting process full of challenges, thrills, puzzles, and rewards. And it’s hard work, no question about that. But you can do it. 

You can do it, and we can help — be sure to read the first three installments in our series, if you haven’t already. If you’re a remote company or considering this option, also check out our advice on how to manage that aspect of your business. And if that’s not enough, reach out to Kyle Morris on LinkedIn. He’s always itching to get nerdy about company culture, entrepreneurship, and related topics. 

We wish you the very best of luck on your journey to create the company culture your business is craving. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Missed the first three installments in our Ultimate Guide to Company Culture? Check out the links below: 

No items found.
No items found.