Admittedly, I get a little jealous when I read about the meteoric rise of some other tech companies. It’s taken us 18 years to reach the 50-employee mark, and until recently, each new addition was a painstaking decision balancing need versus affordability. But looking back, I’m grateful for that time. It taught us how to find and retain great people, and more importantly, how to create an environment where all of your people can be great. That’s what culture means to me – creating the space where everyone can be their best, and where an even greater whole can emerge.
If you’ve read about culture before, you might have been led to believe that it’s all about flexible schedules, free food and socials events. These things can play a role, but culture is not primarily driven by perks and policies — it’s an inner quality, measured by how people think and feel about themselves, each other and the organization they are part of.
Building a great culture is about figuring out how to help your employees thrive so that they can use their creativity, enthusiasm and capacity for learning to drive the success of your organization.
What does it take to create an environment where employees thrive? I believe it starts with providing the opportunity for meaning and purpose in their work. What is the vision of your organization? Is it clearly and regularly communicated throughout the company, or is it a side-note to the pursuit of financial success? Are individual employees invited to share and participate in that vision? The much sought-after “ownership mentality” is possible on a widespread scale if the organization is focused on its vision and all employees are invited to have ownership in making that vision a reality.
While a compelling vision creates the context, the substance of a great culture comes through trust. We must be willing to rely on the members of our teams to make decisions and solve their own problems, providing guidance and support along the way rather than explicit direction. We must be willing to measure productivity over the long term, trusting employees to manage their own lives and decide how they can best bring value. And we must be willing to give honest feedback, trusting in our team members’ ability to manage their emotions and continuously improve themselves.
Ultimately, it comes down to believing in our people enough that we are truly willing to share the responsibility for our organization’s success with them, and this may be the hardest part. As business leaders, we’ve worked hard to get where we are, and if we’ve had some measure of success, the world will heap praise on us for it. It feels great, even addictive because it helps to mask whatever insecurities we’ve inevitably accumulated throughout our lives. As long as we are feeding that addiction, we will unconsciously do things that prevent our team from flourishing. But, if we can let go of our need to continuously prove our competence as individuals, we can begin to understand what it means to be part of something greater than ourselves. We can become leaders rather than achievers, which is the key to both enduring business success and finding greater meaning, purpose and balance in our own lives.
Tips & Tricks for Honest Communication
Here are some things to remember to help improve this important element of your culture:
1) Give feedback early and often. Most people don’t like to give critical feedback, so they will wait to see if a problem corrects itself. By the time they realize they need to deal with the situation, there is already a lot of negativity built up that makes things more difficult. Plus, employees are left to wonder and doubt whether they are meeting expectations.
2) Don’t sugar coat negative feedback with positive platitudes. Instead, get very good at giving positive feedback on the best qualities of your people whenever the opportunity presents itself. This will built trust and security that provides the emotional leverage necessary to effectively use critical feedback without watering it down.
3) Embrace discomfort! Most leaders and organizations avoid emotional situations, and their culture suffers as a result. If you can get comfortable with difficult personal situations, you will begin to see that they hold your greatest opportunities to improve your organization.
4) Be humble and real. It will do wonders for trust in your organization if you can show that you are muddling through the best you can just like everyone else is.
Jon Shinn is COO of OPIE Software, a Gainesville-based company that provides electronic medical records software and practice management services to more than 900 orthotic and prosthetic patient care facilities across the US, Canada and Australia. He graduated from UF with a degree in Computer Engineering in 2000, and has spent his entire professional career managing the technology and human resources development at OPIE.