Why Strong Company Culture is Cultivated, Not Created

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Perform a Google search for “company culture” and you’ll quickly access 1.5 million articles about how to create, change, or develop a better work environment for your team.

The problem with many of those articles, however, is that they revolve around the idea that entrepreneurs and executives can somehow manufacture or manipulate their company’s culture into some sort of utopic corporate environment. The reality, says Pete Gombert, CEO of local marketing automation platform Balihoo, (disclosure: an OpenView portfolio company) is that culture is essentially an organic manifestation of a CEO or founder’s passion, beliefs, and actions.

“Culture isn’t something that’s dictated by a poster you hang on the wall or a witty slogan you pound into your team’s head,” explains Gombert, who has founded or co-founded three software companies. “It’s something that is felt. When you walk into an office, visit a company’s website, or talk to a business’s founders, you should be able to sense culture and determine what exactly drives or fuels the business.”

In that sense, culture can’t really be created. Instead, Gombert says culture is cultivated and influenced by the people you hire, the priorities you set, the policies you implement, and the goals you set.

“I’m not suggesting that cultivating culture is a hands-off process, because there is such a thing as bad culture,” Gombert says. “But I do believe that the key to a great company culture is to allow your employees to self-direct the key elements of culture. What do they care about? What drives or motivates them? What do they want to accomplish? Obviously, you can supplement those elements with your own mission, vision, and values, but it has to be a collaborative process. You can’t just demand that your team adopt some cultural vision that you have in your head.”

4 Pillars of a Strong Company Culture

Pete Gombert“Culture isn’t something that’s dictated by a poster you hang on the wall or a witty slogan you pound into your team’s head. It’s something that is felt.”

— Pete Gombert, CEO at Balihoo 

When it comes to talking about the importance of company culture, Gombert and his team at Balihoo have the credibility that comes with walking the walk. In 2013, Balihoo was named one of the top 50 places to work in America by Outside Magazine and one of the best places to work in Idaho. Moreover, Forbes and Men’s Health magazines have recognized Balihoo for its employees’ quality of life.

So what makes Balihoo such a great place to work?

It might have something to do with the company encouraging its employees to balance their fast-paced work day with spurts of mountain biking, skiing, rafting, and fishing, but Gombert believes it has more to do with Balihoo’s commitment to four key cultural pillars:

Align everyone around a shared goal

Whatever it is your business does, Gombert says it’s important to ensure that everyone at your company contributes, in some way, to solving real issues.

“Every individual in a company will have their own responsibilities, but it’s important that those individual objectives are influenced by a common goal,” Gombert says. “For us, that goal is solving really complex problems in ways that delight our customers. When you have everyone contributing to that objective, it organically enhances employee engagement and fulfillment.”

Ensure your shared goal is supplemented with a strong economic model

Of course, while it’s important for everyone to be driven by a common goal, it’s just as important for a company to have a sustainable economic model in place.

“You can do a lot of great, fun things that improve employee engagement and address your customer’s business problems,” Gombert says, “but none of that matters if the company can’t stay in business. Your team has to know that they’re making a difference and that there’s a good chance they’ll still have a job in two years.”

Encourage individual respect and growth

Whether it’s giving employees a significant amount of discretionary bandwidth to make their own decisions, or encouraging failure through innovation, Gombert says Balihoo urges employees to try new things and learn from their experiences.

“I want everyone to know that we’re genuinely interested in seeing them grow and develop into better employees and people,” he says. “Sometimes, it takes failure to do that, but I think it’s important that employees aren’t afraid to take calculated risks if the potential result is innovation or personal development.”

Give every employee the opportunity to be a good citizen in the community

There’s more to life than work, Gombert says. At Balihoo, every employee is given five days of paid time each year to participate in volunteer activities of their choosing. As an organization, Balihoo also partners with several non-profits in the Boise area and, once a year, hosts a big event that benefits a local charity (last year’s event helped raise $55,000 in one night).

That last point is more of an external-facing concept, Gombert admits, but he says it’s critically important to remind your team that you’re not just some corporate machine that’s obsessed with profits.

“Are we a for-profit business? Absolutely,” Gombert says. “But we’re also very much interested in our employees and the company enriching the lives of others, and I think that allows our culture to really stand out.”

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While Gombert acknowledges that Balihoo offers many of the same perks and cultural bonuses that many other growing software companies do (i.e., being bike and dog friendly, providing microbrew beer taps in the office, and offering in-office yoga and fitness boot camps) he stresses those perks don’t define outstanding company culture.

“In many ways, I think those are vanity perks,” Gombert explains. “They’re nice to have and our team obviously enjoys them, but to really stand out and be different you have to develop a philosophy around culture. That means not just talking about how you promote autonomy, employee growth, and volunteerism. It also means putting the dollars, time, and goals behind those promises to make sure they actually happen.”

Ultimately, Gombert believes that level of commitment is the overarching multiplier that separates great company culture from average, run-of-the-mill work environments.

“Any company can install a game room or give their employees the freedom to take as much vacation time as they want, but those aren’t things that really cultivate great culture,” Gombert says. “At the end of the day, it really boils down to having an intense commitment to making your customers and your employees’ lives better. If every decision you make revolves around that, then you’ll attract and retain great people.”

What do you think are the key signs of a healthy company culture? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image by Les Haines