What is (good) company culture?

Culture is a hot topic these days – if your young company does not have a culture then it’s not a cool startup right? Well let’s just stop right there. A business culture is not optional – it’s not something that you may or may not have – it is there whether you noticed or not. The question is do you know your culture and are you being intentional about reinforcing it every day?

Let’s look at this from another angle for a minute and consider what a culture is not:

  • it is not having a games machine, pool table or table tennis league
  • it is not dressing down on a Friday or having a casual dress code
  • it is not having flexible working hours or a short week
  • it is not painting the walls a bright colour or replacing your walls with glass
  • it is not providing breakfast, lunch and dinner in the office
  • it is also not installing a beer fridge
  • most of all it is not writing values or behaviours on the office wall!

Before I get angry comments let me clarify – a company with a good culture may have many of those things – but they don’t define the culture.

With that out of the way, let’s consider what does make up a company’s culture. As with culture outside the office place it can be described as the way that people behave and communicate – it’s the conventions by which any group agrees to collaborate and probably incorporates shared interests of some sort. So you see, culture exists whether or not we intend it to – without careful consideration it will become the sum of the personalities people you have hired.

A Wall Street trading company may have a culture of wealth aggregation, a charity organisation probably focuses on improving the lives of a segment of society. The culture within your company may reflect the work you do or it may not. Your culture may have a social pub-each-evening focus or your office may be 9 to 5 desk workers – neither of which are defined by your industry or product offering. So if it is such a vague concept that seems to be influenced from every angle then how can it be shaped?

They say that culture comes from the top, and most of the time that is true. Company leaders behave in a certain manner – they exhibit values or behaviours that the rest of the company adopt over time. Those in the business first hire everyone that follows and they probably pick people that share their values. If, however, the team is purposeful about it’s culture – sharing an understanding about what drives them or communicating a set of values then the culture will follow. What you (as a company leader especially) must remember is that you need to live these values and exhibit the culture that you wish to see in the company. Otherwise it’s just another example of leadership delusion or an exercise in futility. Be inspired by other’s successful cultures of course, but make it your own.

Remember that great company culture is worth defending – it could be why many of your team come to work each day.

How can I improve employee retention?

Engineers are in high demand – it’s no surprise given that software is running more and more of the world every day. With competition for quality engineers being at an all time high it may seem inevitable that you will lose members of your team to better opportunities. To an extent this may be true but it does not have to be a regular occurrence!

Don’t stop people moving on

Let me start by saying that staff moving to new opportunities is not a bad thing. Everyone should be able to work on what inspires them and provides new challenges to keep them in their toes. Having staff that don’t feel engaged or do not share an enthusiasm for what you do will not be best for your team or your company. Sometimes individuals will see / find / be offered opportunities that better suit them elsewhere and when that happens it seems fair to help them make the move. That said there are many things you can do to provide good reasons that people should want to stay at your company.

It’s not about contracts, restrictions or notice periods – it’s about providing your team with the best possible environment for what you are all about. If someone wants to work in search engines it’s going to be tough to be a better place for them than Google – unless geography is important. If you want to build a business networking platform you would need to understand why someone would want to work for you and not for LinkedIn. The key here is to strive to be the best in your particular field. Don’t settle for “people who were turned down at FaceBook” – they will probably be very bright to have got through even part of the recruitment process, but why would they not choose to work for you as their first choice?

The right environment

Consider what you are offering. Are you focusing on the office environment, or the challenges that you are offering to be solved – or is it all about the ability for every member of the team to be innovating in their daily work? If you know what your particular angle is then you will be better placed to engage, recruit and retain staff in all departments.

Make sure you spend time thinking about how much responsibility you can truly offer each new member of the team. Are your key roles all taken or are you expecting to share out many responsibilities as you grow? If you are structured to have 1 large team this may be challenging – you may look instead at many small teams where each member of the team can be responsible for a certain task or role but for a more focused area of your product (i.e. That area which their team is responsible for).

The future – for everyone

Another important aspect of your company’s appeal should probably be training – how can everyone be learning all the time? What opportunities for progression are you providing for everyone including your top level staff? Remember if you want to recruit the smartest engineers you will need to make sure there is always something for them to learn. I don’t mean to say that you need to have a curriculum laid out – many will excel if you simply provide the freedom to provide their own leaning opportunities – but don’t let this look like a lack of consideration for their future! Providing a general path or outlining particular areas of training you know are important would be a great start.

Lastly I would recommend considering how members of your staff can be involved in shaping your product or how it’s developed. If you have gathered a group who are excited about the product you are building then it should go without saying that they may have a desire to shape it’s future! Do you have a product team who can consult with engineers or testers? Or are you set up with cross functional teams? If so great, but don’t forget to delegate responsibility for product areas to the team completely so they can truly own that area of it’s development! If you’re worried about consistency then make sure each of your designers collaborate on this in a similar way to how your developers must communicate outside their team to discuss technology stacks and deployment etc.

Spread the message

Remember that answering these questions is just the beginning. You need to live all these aspects and continue to encourage your team to make use of the opportunities available.

Advertise what is important to you and for your team, hire based on it and stick to it at all times. You will find that your employee retention increases significantly if you can remember and reinforce why you all come to work each morning.

How can I hire the best engineers?

You can’t – Google has them. Strike that – I have them 😉

Clearly I’m joking, but only to a point. Surely every company should be striving to get the best engineers. And they all can!

Who is your ideal engineer?

That’s the big question. If you can define what the ideal team member looks like for you then you can both recruit with better focus and also aim to get the very best of this specific sub-group of engineer. But not at the cost of diversity! Make sure that your definition is clear enough in terms of approach, experience or enthusiasm but do not artificially reduce the different backgrounds these people may come from. The variety of individuals on a team should be considered a strength and will create a higher quality, better thought out product in the long term.

I strongly disagree with the “checkbox approach” that many recruiters use – I.e. 5 years experience in tech X, expert in method Y. It’s important to consider how each new recruit will adapt to your team – enthusiasm and keenness to learn rate far higher in my estimation. After all you want to bring people on to be part of the journey forward not just to bring their skills and apply them to your domain.

Be honest in your recruitment

It may not be comfortable but it’s important to share the lows as well as the highs of the job they will do. You won’t be doing anyone any favors if  you sign up a new member of staff and in the first week they realize it was not the job they thought they were applying for. This goes for the highs as well – only advertise and discuss opportunities that are real – do not dangle freedom, responsibilities or pay progression that you cannot truly expect to provide.

Know what defines an engineer in your organization and what you can provide for them. Consider the opportunities and also the challenges. Be open and honest about it.

Remember that “A” people hire other “A” people whereas “B”s tend to hire “C”s. Always be hiring people that are smarter than you – after all they will be doing the real work 😉