Culture is key to creating a destination workplace

If you had to name only one thing that drives your organization’s success, chances are it would be your workforce. And when you think about what it takes to become a destination employer, the answer is quite simple. Focus on your most valuable asset — your employees. If employees are key to your success, it only makes sense to put them at the center of your total rewards strategies, including how you communicate. However, getting started on this path can be a daunting challenge.

To become a destination employer, executives have to be invested in the idea of a thriving culture and employee engagement.

“Culture is an inherent part of your organization that’s either defined by you or by other influences. There’s no short-term fix for improving it,” says Cindi Morris, Ohio wellbeing and engagement consulting leader at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

“What’s important is to ask yourself what defines your culture in the eyes of your employees, and whether that perception will help you compete at the highest level. If the answer is no, then you have some work to do to effectively bridge the gap,” says Joe Roberts, area vice president of Health and Welfare Key Accounts at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

Smart Business spoke with Morris and Roberts about how employers can improve their culture and employee engagement to start competing as a destination employer.

What kind of results do organizations see when their employees are engaged?

There are abundant opportunities for positive results when employees are engaged, from improved production to better talent attraction and retention, to name a few. When your employees are engaged, they have the ability to impact the way your business is run. Annual benefits costs may decline, turnover may be reduced and people may take fewer days off and perform at higher levels, which sparks competitive strength and success. Employees may even become brand advocates for your organization, helping to position it as a place where people want to work.

How can companies measure and improve their employee engagement level?

While most organizations have a set of core values, engagement hinges on earning employees’ trust by living up to those beliefs. Many employers use engagement surveys to gain feedback directly from their employees to better understand their unique needs and preferences. But when management conducts a survey, it’s imperative to transparently share the results with the workforce, along with plans to address issues and opportunities that were identified. Once employees know management is listening, executives can start to create effective programs that tie back to the core values of the organization.

A workforce evaluation tool to help organizations assess specific workforce dynamics can be a helpful starting point when developing a strategy to impact employee engagement. For example, when you know your employees may need a different level of benefits and prefer different communication channels depending on where they are in life — early career, mid-career, pre-retiree, etc. — you can tailor a program with those considerations in mind. You’re able to positively engage employees differently.

What else can strengthen culture and employee engagement?

A strong culture requires commitment beyond your HR department. It starts at the top. When executives demonstrate that culture matters, not only through their words, but more importantly through their actions, your organization begins to earn employees’ trust. An employee’s journey isn’t linear — it’s cyclical. Their experiences at each stage of the cycle can have major impacts on your business.

As a takeaway, what are the key elements of an effective destination-workplace strategy?

Organizations can develop a culture-centric approach by creating a cohesive, engaging and productive work environment based on a shared purpose, and a well-defined set of company values and norms. Being thoughtful, intentional and purposeful in defining your values, and communicating them consistently through words and actions will set the stage for success.

Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

Manage your people like Google

How to have a big-company impact on your small-company employees

It seems more than ever that business success is determined by the quality of our employees. Events such as Smart Business’ recent Smart Culture Awards remind us that our employees are our most valuable assets and there are thousands of books that explain how to find the A players who will take our teams to the next level.

One book that addresses this is “Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock. Laszlo is the former senior vice president, people operations with Google and he has developed one of the most sophisticated and successful cultural platforms in recent history.

You may think that because you don’t run a software company or have Google’s margins that you are not able to retain employees the same way Google has, but Bock explains that nothing is further from the truth.

The best things at work are free

Bock explains there are three defining aspects of Google’s culture. Those are:

  1. Finding a compelling mission.
  2. Being transparent.
  3. Giving our people a voice.

Most importantly, he clarifies that the most critical aspects of their culture are free and can be improved upon on by any business in any industry. In fact, Bock summarizes that the best people primarily stay with a company for the following two reasons:

  1. The quality of the people they work with.
  2. The feeling that the work they do is meaningful.

As a business leader, you can take clear action on those two things each day, regardless of your budget.

Lava lamps and beanbag chairs

What are you currently doing to articulate the bigger purpose of your business to your employees? Are you sharing stories about how your product or service changed the success of a customer? Or how you contributed to a safer or more effective experience somewhere in the world? If not, you can and you should. By simply sharing a story each week with your internal staff, you can change their perception of the impact that your organization has.

Also, a lot has been written about how to hire the right people. But to get the most out of them, you have to do more than just get them in your building. How aggressively do you follow through on your promises once they have been hired? Are you making sure your best people are interacting with each other frequently? Are they constantly being challenged in a way that is meaningful and aligned with their personal goals?

Successful cultures don’t focus on lava lamps and beanbag chairs. They tap into their employees’ need to become the best version of themselves. What activities are you focused on this week to help them get there?

Sam Falletta has developed successful customer acquisition and retention strategies for some of the largest brands in the world, including Microsoft, Ford, Honda and the American Red Cross. 

HR departments can play a key role in building a strong culture

Meredith J. Guyot was on the road attending a business meeting 30 years ago when she had a profound experience at the hotel bar. She was given a coaster that she still owns to this day with the following quote scrawled across it.

“People may doubt what you say, but they always believe what you do,” reads the quote most commonly attributed to Lewis Cass, an American military officer, politician and statesman in the early 1800s.

The coaster sits next to Guyot’s phone and she looks it on a daily basis.

“That is my brand,” says Guyot, director of human resources and operations at Nesco Resource. “All of us as individuals should have a brand. What do you stand for? It doesn’t have to be a mission statement. It doesn’t have to be a vision. It’s a way to let people know who you are, what you believe and how you approach your life and your work.”

HR departments play a key role in helping businesses build and maintain a strong culture. When employees believe that their company will treat them fairly, it produces loyalty and trust that should lead to happier employees and increased productivity.

Smart Business spoke with Guyot about how to build trust between management and employees in your company.

What are some common attributes to a strong HR department?

Consistency is a good place to start. When employees understand your rationale for making decisions, it eliminates a lot of stress. If you have to make a decision that veers from your typical approach to such matters, the key is to be able to provide a rationale that explains the decision. You don’t want to leave people guessing why you decided to do this or that as it creates unease and can easily distract employees from their work.

Along these lines, transparency is another fundamental trait of companies with a strong culture and an effective HR team. Engage your team in conversation and when possible, incorporate their feedback into your decision-making process. If you have a company meeting coming up, reach out to employees and ask them what they would like the meeting to cover. What do your employees want to learn? What could you help them with that would make it easier for them to do their jobs? When people trust you have their best interests at heart, they will feel empowered and engaged.

What can leaders do who are uncomfortable engaging in casual conversations?

If you aren’t good at small talk and conversing with your employees about things outside of their work, it’s best to find someone who does have that skill to handle that role. On the surface, it may not seem that important to be able to talk to your team about what’s going on in their lives. But it can be of great benefit when an unexpected situation develops.

At our company, we had a young woman whose spouse passed away rather unexpectedly. The couple had small children and he was the benefit carrier for his family, so she was going to have to pick up our benefits. The CEO wouldn’t know that. But as the head of HR, I brought it to his attention and the company did something to ease the burden for her. We did it because it was the right thing to do. It’s not going to make or break the company, but it sends a message about how we do things. Companies are not made up of ‘people,’ they are made up of individuals. These individuals are your customers, so be very aware of their needs.

What other tips can help a company build rapport with its employees?

Talk to each other. Sounds easy. Should someone send you an email that is very in-depth, pick up the phone. Discuss the issue together and ask for their thoughts. Often they have the right solution, but only want it to be verified. By providing this support, you also deliver empowerment. Now send the email, thank them for the discussion and reiterate that their decision was the right one. As our role is strongly that of adviser, adding the word ‘trusted’ as an adjective is what separates the HR role from one who, as an example, manages a benefit platform, to one who builds a platform that best supports the individuals’ needs and company’s vision. Know your HR product. Keep abreast of developing laws and regulations. Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open to all levels of your organization.

Insights Workforce Management is brought to you by Nesco Resource

Commitment-based organizations: Building a culture for success

Your coworker, Charlie, has just submitted his third project to you past its deadline. Not only have the projects been late, but they have been sloppily put together with errors and typos amok. You start complaining to your other coworker about Charlie’s behavior: “Charlie never submits his projects on time. And, with all the mistakes in them, he doesn’t even care about his work.”

Most people at work experience something similar to the short scene above. In many company cultures it is commonplace for people to relate to one another by their behaviors and actions. People are quick to form opinions and judgements and will completely write someone off, as in the scenario above. When people continually relate to one another as the opinions or judgements they have of each other, the results can be devastating within a company. Trust is eroded and a culture of complaining, pointing fingers and forming snap judgements is created.

Extraordinary cultures produce extraordinary results. In low performing organizations, people relate to each other as their opinions and judgments. But in high performing organizations, people relate to each other as their commitments.

So what is a commitment? A commitment is a bold statement, an audacious stand, a risky stake in the ground. Your commitment statement encompasses your core characteristics and what others can count on you to execute.

Here’s an example of a commitment statement:

“My core attributes are selflessness, love, joy, supportiveness, and passion. I am committed to engage my peers with servant leadership in pursuit of their ultimate dreams, to always uphold and strengthen the culture of our team, and to complete all projects on time, with a ridiculous attention to detail.”

In high performing organizations, not only do all employees generate commitment statements, but they articulate and declare them in front of their peers. In some organizations, employees publicly post their commitment statements by their desks so everyone in the organization knows who is committed to what.

In commitment-based cultures, people relate to each other from commitment to commitment even when actions do not align with commitments. Instead of engaging in complaining conversations, coworkers engage in coaching conversations with each other. It looks something like, “I know you’re committed to completing all your projects on time with attention to detail, but I noticed this last project was submitted a day late and contained some errors. Can we talk about that? How can I support you in your commitment?”

Instead of forming a snap judgment, others in the organization are afforded the opportunity to coach the employee constructively by relating to him or her as his or her commitment. In low-performing organizations, an employee is written off as not caring about his or her work or the company. But in high-performing organizations, an employee is coached back into alignment with his or her commitments by a peer or supervisor who is willing to engage him or her with candor and care. The difference is staggering and transformative.

Imagine, for a moment, your organization with a commitment-based culture. Your employees are in touch with themselves, their core values and the values of your organization. They are engaged and invigorated, showing up to work as the best version of themselves. They have articulated what they can be trusted to execute and complete. Everybody in your organization knows who is committed to what, acting in service of your company’s vision. Each person is held accountable to a commitment they themselves have created by a constant network of mutual awareness and support. They are willing to be coached in their commitments, and to live into them on a daily basis.

High performing organizations operate with commitment-based cultures. Extraordinary cultures produce extraordinary results.

Travis Sheldon is a consultant at Gabriel Consulting Group.

Create an organizational culture of customer intimacy

A key differentiating factor in any company’s success formula can be attributed to the philosophy and practices of their founders and executives regarding service to both their internal and external customers. To create a caring organizational attitude, a philosophy of employee appreciation must be embedded in the culture of the company and practiced on a regular basis. Executives and managers must understand that long-term success and growth tend to be the end result of having satisfied clienteles and engaged employees who in return can create a delightful culture of customer intimacy each time they deal with consumers or end-users. As such, managers and employees should be encouraged to interact both with their colleagues and customers on a regular basis.

Know the customer

A firm’s managers and employees should keep their fingers on the pulse of their customers in order to get immediate and local feedback. For example, research shows that nearly 75 percent of retail shoppers shop on a weekly basis, so getting to know them is an important factor in retaining them. Building a relationship with customers is a necessity as opposed to a luxury in order to stay aware of their needs and expectations in each community.

A major factor contributing to a company’s ongoing success would be their loyalty and commitment to employee training toward providing a culture of delightful service with a smile; in other words, a firm must have an organizational environment that is focused on customer intimacy. Today’s managers and employees must understand that they cannot be casual about achieving customer intimacy, as it needs an intimate, professional, thorough, consistent and disciplined method of serving customers that will become a normal way of doing business. Companies need to build an organizational culture of customer intimacy by creating an environment that is both sensitive and responsive to the wants and needs of all their internal and external customers.

Serve with a smile

Developing customer intimacy means, at a minimum, working through certain principles and concepts over and over again in order to make it a normal part of the organization’s culture. Each concept is critical for success of the program and feeds the next phase.

  • Understand your customers’ wants and needs.
  • Understand your customers’ perceptions of your company and your competitors’ perceptions of your company.
  • Establish and maintain a strong customer intimacy program throughout the company.
  • Continually improve the customer intimacy relationship program.

The philosophy of a company should not just be to satisfy and delight customers one time; today’s time-impoverished customers must be satisfied, delighted and excited every time they visit the company. Employees must be taught that customers are their most valued assets who must be welcomed, cherished and appreciated for choosing to spend their time and hard earned income with this firm. As part the training process, managers and employees should reflect and focus on the following facts about customers.

  • Attracting a new customer costs companies five to six times more than keeping one who already shops with them.
  • Ninety-five percent of complaining customers will continue to do business with the company if you take care of their problems properly and resolve those problems on the spot.
  • One dissatisfied customer tells eight to 10 potential customers about a problem or bad experience that wasn’t addressed during a transaction. It has been said that each of the eight to 10 potential customers are likely to tell at least five more people about the problem or bad experience.

To provide customer intimacy in a timely manner, employees should be taught the 10-Foot and 10-Second Rules concept to help them quickly acknowledge customers. The 10-Foot rule or concept states that one must acknowledge all customers who are within ten feet of one’s surroundings. The 10-Second rule states that these customers must be acknowledged within ten seconds of entering into the service area or the 10-Foot zone. Research in the retail industry indicates the factors that most affect customer loyalty:

  • The largest percentage of customers (68 percent) leave if they perceive an attitude of indifference.
  • Some customers (14 percent) leave because they feel they can find better quality products and services elsewhere.
  • Customers (9 percent) shop elsewhere because they think your prices are higher than your competitors.
  • A few of the customers (5 percent) become friends with people who work for a competitor and take their business there.
  • Some customers (3 percent) leave because they move to a different area.

Employees should be encouraged and empowered to use their daily observations, customer feedback, survey evaluation and other data to improve their jobs, better serve customers, and make their company the best alternative in the industry.

Meet/exceed expectations

Change is constant and ubiquitous because customers are becoming more knowledgeable and demanding. In today’s market-based economy, customers want a variety of options that meet their needs, demands and desires in a timely manner. Customer intimacy means that employees must deliver what the company promises; and when possible, they should exceed their customers’ expectations in order to wow and delight them. Companies that create an organizational culture of customer intimacy where employees consistently offer good service with a smile will survive and thrive in the long run. Executives and managers must be role models of customer intimacy so that it can become part of the organization’s culture.

Dr. Bahaudin G. Mujtaba, is professor of management for Nova Southeastern University at the College of Business and Entrepreneurship. He has served as a corporate management development and diversity trainer. He is the author of “Managerial Skills and Practices for Global Leadership” and “Coaching and Performance Management: Developing and Inspiring Leaders” book, published by ILEAD Academy, LLC. Reach him at (954) 262-5045 or [email protected].

Four steps to rid your company culture of selfishness

Selfish is as selfish does. If you have influence, perpetuate or tolerate a selfish culture in your organization, you will reap the self-serving behavior you have sown.

Selfish behavior didn’t work on the playground, and it doesn’t work in the adult working world — at least not for long. You may get some wins but only while you’re the only game in town or until your best people leave you for a more nurturing work environment. Caring cultures inspire productivity, results, retention and customer satisfaction. Here’s the proof:

Productivity: A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12 percent spike in productivity, while unhappy workers proved 10 percent less productive. As the research team put it, “We find that human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”

Results: Happy employees care more about team success. They not only work for individual success but for the good of the team and organization. In a non-caring and self-serving environment, employees either have short-sighted goals or put in minimal work to maintain anonymity. Gallup did a meta-analysis on the relationship between team engagement and performance. This study included more than 82,000 teams in more than 200 companies which included 2 million employees. Profitability of the top quartile of “engaged” employees enjoyed a 21 percent advantage over engagement’s bottom.

Retention: Although it seems obvious that employees would be likely to seek other employment in a selfish workplace, average employees and high potentials are less drawn to financial gains then they are to a happy and and enthusiastic about their work — often favoring a strong relationship with their direct manager. J. Brandon Rigoni and Bailey Nelson, in a January 2015 article for Gallup write, “Leaders create a culture of engagement in which employees are more likely to want to stay, even if a more lucrative offer is on the table. The percentage who would consider leaving for a raise of 20 percent or less drops to 37 percent, or by slightly more than 30 percent compared with actively disengaged workers.”T

Customer Satisfaction: Employees treat customers the way the employees are treated by leadership. Fortune’s top companies to work for rate high in customer satisfaction. For example, Wegmans grocery store chain has made Fortune’s list all 18 years the list has been tabulated. In April 2016, Wegmans was ranked America’s Favorite Supermarket in a study of more than 10,000 consumers.

Take these four steps to rid your culture of selfishness and promote a warm, caring and motivated work environment:

  1. Take an inventory and acknowledge your cultural shortcomings. The perception your people have of your culture is your culture. Execute bench-marking surveys to capture metrics with anonymity. More importantly, talk to people. Find out what they see, and what they want. Then go to work on it.
  2. Hire, develop and keep positive employees for the culture. You have to have “the right people on the bus.” This means you must commit to hiring and retaining those who are an appropriate motivational fit for the organization. Promote and develop leaders who possess the talent and demeanor who will influence and inspire. Likewise, you have an obligation and necessity to rid your company of selfish employees at every level.
  3. Assess and fix compensation annually. While employees are less likely to leave an organization where they are cared about and supported as individuals, this doesn’t mean that they are not susceptible to better financial offers, particularly if your culture is one annual bonus period shy of a mass exodus.
  4. Coach and communicate. Employees with potential to impact the growth and development of your organization are hungry for feedback, coaching and growth. Paying attention, set high goals and then coach to those goals. Regular coaching and interaction is bolus dose of leadership medicine in the eradication of selfishness.

You may wonder if you can afford the time, effort, or possibly financial resources to rid your culture of selfishness. Perhaps a better question is, can you afford not to?

T.J. Jones is president/owner of TJ Leadership, an author, expert trainer and leadership coach. He writes and speaks with practical wisdom in order to teach companies, teams and individuals how to reach new heights of fulfillment and performance. For information, visit

A culture of innovation is crucial for business success

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers the following definition for innovation: the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods.

But many people would use this definition for innovation: difficult, deflating and humbling. Many businesses I have come to know are very commodity-like, finding it difficult to switch from running the day-to-day to be “innovative.”

I suggest these methods to facilitate different ways to think about innovation, remembering that it can start with your organization’s existing products or processes.

  1. Business owners need to change the way they look at failure. One of my favorite thinkers is Jim Collins, author of many books including Good to Great, who says, “The opposite of success is not failure but growth.” What he means is that if you fail, as long as you learn something, you have not lost.People need to get more comfortable with missing the outcome they wanted and then with what they have learned, revise and retest the new idea. Go where you can afford to fail. Start with low-impact trials by shooting bullets before cannonballs.
  2. Business owners need to get comfortable with not getting bogged down in excessive study before launching new ideas (“paralysis analysis”). Innovation does not happen through excessive planning. Resistance to innovation comes from excessive planning. The key is to keep launching new ideas and get real-time feedback. One needs to take multiple shots on goal in order to score.
  1. Create a culture within your organization where employees and managers feel like something is at risk. I am not suggesting people need to fear for their jobs, but innovation often happens early in the life cycle of a business out of necessity to survive. Innovation needs to happen early so that a company can grow to fulfill the vision of the founder(s).On the other end of the spectrum, an established business at risk of bankruptcy may use innovation as a last straw to change the destiny of the business so that it may once again become relevant.For those businesses in between, innovation must be cultivated and encouraged throughout the entire organization by the leadership.
  1. Lastly, get out of the office and even the city to see what is going on in the wider world. Reach out to people in and out of your industry to ask questions and learn new ideas. You will be surprised how many people will be willing to give time and advice. My own organization, Evolution Capital Partners, has benefitted tremendously with this type of effort. Keep an open mind, ideas can come from anyone, even customers.

Innovation is not a pretty process like in the movies. It requires a lot of trial and error. All learning is developmental. With innovation, there is no way to avoid the failure cycle, so the secret to success is to speed up the cycle and learn faster.

Jeffrey Kadlic is co-founder and managing partner of Evolution Capital Partners LLC, a private equity fund investing growth equity nationwide in Second Stage Companies. Jeffrey is an alumnus of Crain’s Forty under 40 and an EY Entrepreneur Of The Year™ finalist.

How one business boomed by investing — even splurging — on employees

I set out to create a place where I wanted to work — and I also created a psychologically healthy workplace.

Flexibility has been central to our business model since I launched Grants Plus, a fundraising consulting firm serving nonprofits, in 2007. From the start, Grants Plus staff has had the option to work from home, our PlayhouseSquare office or anywhere. Sometimes we must be on-site — for a client visit or a staff meeting—but employees appreciate creating their own schedules and defining their work routines.

As Grants Plus grew, I added employee wellness opportunities and professional supports that I believed would produce optimal quality work and satisfied clients. We began offering workshops on grant writing and the other tasks of our business, but also on time management, personal branding and mindfulness. Each year, our staff members have 50 paid work hours for professional development.

I had naysayers: I recall one mentor who balked at that line item and said cutting it would make us more profitable. But I saw that investing in our team made team members more invested in the company. I made a commitment then to always prioritize employee training and enrichment.

The payoff

Nearly a decade later, these investments have paid off. In the last few years alone, revenues have grown 170 percent, and our staff has tripled. We’ve won awards for our growth, including the Weatherhead 100 Upstart Award for three consecutive years.

Now we’re also winning awards for our workplace culture. In 2014, we received state-level recognition from the Ohio Psychological Association, and in February, we received a national 2016 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award from the American Psychological Association. Grants Plus is one of six winners in North America and the only winner in Cleveland.

These awards didn’t happen by accident: when we learned the APA had defined criteria for a Psychologically Healthy Workplace, we established a task force and set out to meet them, in five categories: employee involvement, work/life balance, employee growth and development, health and safety, and employee recognition.

Among other steps, we implemented a banded structure of small work teams, which has nurtured leadership and made advancement pathways transparent. We named “truth” one of our company values — lived out in quarterly culture surveys that invite employees to rate the business as an employer.

Leaving the comfort zone

We push ourselves outside our comfort zone, whether as a team completing a high-ropes course or as individuals tackling new work challenges. Employees work hard, but not at the expense of their well-being, and as a company we honor balance, not burnout.

A work-from-home environment works well for Grants Plus, but won’t suit every business model. Every company, however, can implement policies and practices that encourage employee well-being.

It’s our intention to continue these practices and to encourage other Cleveland businesses of all types and sizes to develop psychologically healthy workplaces — and ultimately set the region apart as a place talented leaders will come to work hard and stay.

To learn more about the APA criteria, visit

Lauren Steiner is president of Grants Plus, a grant seeking firm that has helped nonprofits across the U.S. raise more than $70 million in grant funding. In 2015, 73 percent of the grant proposals submitted for clients resulted in funding. Lauren was a filmmaker, attorney, college instructor and nonprofit development executive before founding Grants Plus in 2007 to help more nonprofits raise the funds they need to change the world.


Corporate leaders can encourage a startup mentality

Too often, corporate leaders hear the words “startup culture” and roll their eyes at images of airy offices with treehouses and dress codes that include flip-flops.

While that may have merit, it ignores the inherent advantages that a startup has in the marketplace — namely, the ability to solve specific problems for its customers and scale rapidly. Enterprise leaders may recognize the need for agility, but their cultures often lack the mechanics to support it.

Here’s a truth I’ve learned within my agency and our clients: innovation rarely stems from the C-suite. While leaders set the stage for a successful culture, innovative companies thrive on the creativity of their employees. Here are a few steps to drive change within your organization.

Recognize your two cultures

For better or worse, all corporations carry a legacy culture that can hinder the growth of new ideas. This legacy provides massive value — it’s what made the company successful to begin with, but it can allow inertia to overcome innovation.

Instilling that startup mentality requires a compelling reason for change. Many leaders try to emulate innovative brands like Google or 3M saying, “We give employees 20 percent of time to innovate,” without a cultural reason to do so.

Driving this change too quickly can break a culture — even the company. Leaders must find an incentive for a cultural shift, set a reasonable timeline and slowly blend innovative ideas into your legacy culture.

Reduce management barriers

S. Chris Edmonds recently wrote a great article on where the responsibility for promoting culture lies. Company leaders set the vision for culture, but it’s critical to hand employees the reins to foster ownership and accountability. At my digital product agency, 352 Inc., we took a radical step three years ago and completely removed management in favor of team-centric servant leaders.

Our small, cross-functional agile teams allow employees to work directly with clients, set their own production schedules and pursue disruptive ideas in a fail-fast, learn-faster environment. By removing managers from daily operations, both employees and leadership are freed to focus on what matters most for each group.

Create values-based metrics

You can’t just offer the leeway to be innovative and expect staff to take risks on their own. Providing creative freedom is one thing; giving employees a reason to utilize it is another.

Pursuing change means fundamentally risking your job — leaders need to encourage, even celebrate, when innovation goes wrong. This requires strong core values and metrics that measure employees’ performance against those values.

Look outside your own walls

Sparking innovation within a large, complex organization isn’t easy, so external partners can introduce new ideas and mitigate the risk of pushing for change. Many companies simply aren’t built to take risks or struggle to empower an isolated innovation group within the company.

Agencies provide an independent team that can work in parallel to try new products, validate ideas in the marketplace and utilize emerging technologies in ways that may stump enterprise teams.

Ultimately, capturing that startup spirit requires strong storytelling and empowerment. Give your employees motivation to embrace risk and the means to do so, and I guarantee they’ll respond.

Geoff Wilson is the president and founder of 352 Inc. and an evangelist for his Barely Manage to Lead philosophy, using agile teams to drive iterative growth. 352 is a digital product development agency specializing in product strategy, user experience design, custom web development and digital marketing. 352 turns ideas into successful digital products for companies like Cox Automotive, Microsoft and YouCaring. 

Building an unbeatable culture in five steps

Collaborative Solutions was recently named among the top 20 2016 Best-of-the-Best professional service organizations by SPI research, and it got me thinking about what’s led us to this point. A strong industry, smart leadership, and efficient systems have played a role, but the biggest factor was the company culture.

Below are the top five tips that might help your company build an unbeatable culture.

  1. Encourage Collaboration

Collaboration is absolutely critical in maintaining corporate culture. Helping one another is extremely important, whether it’s with a customer challenge, a technical question or even something simple like trouble with a timesheet.

Foster collaboration from the start. Assign new employees a mentor on day one and teach them to rely on their fellow employees for support and advice. In order to further encourage collaboration, offer tools that make it simple like SalesForce Chatter, SharePoint and Skype, which all foster knowledge transfer and group learning.

  1. Check your Ego at the Door

In a fast-paced cloud consulting environment, innovation is key. How does your organization innovate? From the top down or the bottom up? The best ideas come from employees who are on the ground with customers every day. Encourage their ideas and innovation with an employee bonus structure.

With an open-door policy at the leadership level, employees know their ideas will be heard and that they can count on the support and resources they need to fully develop new ideas and innovations.

  1. Ask for Referrals

One of the single best ways to maintain an awesome company culture is to grow based on referrals. New hires who become stars are often those who come with “one degree” of separation.

How can you build a team of top talent? Put programs in place to encourage referrals. Collaborative Solutions offers a referral reward program to promote referrals, and we put “culture fit” high on the list of criteria we screen for during our interview process.

  1. Focus on Excellent Customer Outcomes

Talented consultants want to work for a proven winner. Focusing on excellent outcomes, no matter your business, will elevate your company and lead the best and brightest to join your team.

  1. Offer Efficient Onboarding and Invest in Learning and Development

The happiest employees are those who come up to speed quickly and are immediately able to contribute to customer success. Your onboarding process should support this. When new employees come on board, they should quickly move through an effective onboarding process to get access to the tools and information they need to be successful.

After onboarding, keeping employees happy long-term requires continuous learning and development to help your team grow into their roles and advance in their careers. Your company will want to invest considerably in a learning and development program to ensure that you continuously build your team’s knowledge and abilities through targeted training and professional development.

Bob Maller is president and chief culture officer at Collaborative Solutions, a leading global finance and HR transformation consultancy that leverages world-class cloud solutions to help deliver successful outcomes for its customers. For more information, visit