| Nov 18, 2021

How to Grow a Company Culture From the Ground Up

Establishing a productive company culture starts with hiring and cultivating the right people. Here's how I did it.

Like many businesses, we went fully remote during COVID-19, and our re-opening process came with new challenges, especially in fostering a productive company culture. About six months into the pandemic, our client roster skyrocketed, and we needed to figure out how we would manage that, and with how many people. Fortunately, in an effort to minimize turnover the previous year, we had already adopted a new ethos in how we treated our employees and innovated ways to make them feel like part of a team – a process made easier by a great group of people.

I struggled for five years to establish a strong company culture, but in the end, that culture came on its own by hiring the right people. Three of our current five directors came from the same law firm and we brought with us our core values from the start — innovation, collaboration, community, and trust — a basic set of ideals that we would foster over the next ten years and instill into all future employees. We grew our company culture from the ground up by finding the right people, who were not only talented in their fields but also bought into those core values. 

Here’s how it worked: 

Create a Community

People who feel a sense of community together will have more success working together, so look for inclusive, friendly people willing to both work hard and be sociable outside of work. We have cornhole and bocce leagues, as well as holiday food drive competitions. In our office, we encourage community through holiday parties, costume competitions, bake-offs – some kind of office gathering at least once a week. For one event, the entire agency split into different Game of Thrones houses and we spent hours trying to “poison” one another. People who enjoy spending time together end up working better together, too.

We also encourage as much personality in the office as possible. Two people on our team, for example, have been in friendly competition over Christmas since their first months working together. Over the years, it’s become a structured event, covering multiple performance categories and rated on a point system. The whole office anticipates with excitement the flurry of baked goods and elaborate decorations to come from these two teammates. When you let people bring into the office the things that bring them joy, even small events can have an agency-wide effect. 

Encourage Innovation

Innovation drives growth, but the right people to rise to that challenge are those willing to go the extra mile. Beyond social gatherings and activities, we also encourage friendly office competition.  As we specialize in SEO for attorneys, some departments set their own performance competitions – in link-building for the links department, for instance. Others make a point to celebrate annual improvements. In an environment of friendly competition, employees drive one another to become better workers. 

You can rest assured in your commitment to always encourage innovation by finding people confident enough to bring up new ideas and skilled enough to see them through. I sit in on private meetings ready to run with whatever projects people want to try and, 99% of the time, I tell them to go for it. A little structure, maybe, a few side notes to keep in mind, but rarely will I ever say no to an idea. When you know you have the right people, you know that they’ll do their best job and can let them be truly innovative.

Lately, we’ve been impressed by how many candidates display a zest for innovation, starting their own businesses, or pursuing a personal project for their professional development despite the volatile job market during the pandemic. We work to identify promising candidates whose previous work experience or extracurricular activities reflects an ability to work within teams and a knack for fostering collaboration. Regardless of whether they’ve participated in an internship or have years of work experience, we try to pinpoint what type of impact they’ve had and how they bettered the organization by being part of it. 

Invite Collaboration

People who make collaboration a priority form the most productive teams. They genuinely want to help others because they recognize that improving one teammate’s ability to perform benefits everyone. When I look for new employees, I look for people who want to help small businesses. This shows me that they value having a positive effect on other people’s chance at success, and will feel good about doing their job every day. In an office of collaborative people, everyone rests easy asking for help and feels good about themselves when they can offer it. 

The right people for creating a productive company culture will also innovate in the ways they collaborate. Each of our departments organizes around collaboration, from monthly meetings as the general platform to share ideas, to chat groups for immediate collaboration from anywhere. For our bigger teams, collaboration is baked into the process to make sure it never gets overlooked, but even smaller teams of a few people can be more productive if they take initiative and leverage available collaboration tools. 

To determine a candidate’s fit with the company, we often ask candidates about their role when in a group/team environment to understand how they will drive innovation and new ideas while still ensuring an open and collaborative community. 

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Build Trust

People who are willing to build trust are crucial to all four pillars of a productive company culture. Demonstrate trust by listening to your employees and taking action, and your employees will learn to trust that you invite their collaboration and innovation. We schedule individual private check-ins, and while heavy topics may not always come up, everyone knows they’ll have an opportunity to discuss them without needing to request it. People who trust their coworkers as experts in their field, willing to collaborate and work together, feel more comfortable going to them with a problem and asking for help.

One key component of building trust is encouraging performance based on merit instead of seniority. Even during the pandemic, a few of our new hires quickly demonstrated high commitment, talent, and professionalism, and are now being slated for managerial positions over those with more time at the company. Meritocracy can cause some tough moments, especially for employees not meeting performance standards, but trust that dealing with their negative feedback will have a more positive impact as a whole for your business than avoiding them.

It’s important to hire people who will let you help them achieve their greatest successes. In interview sessions, we ask candidates to recount a time when a specific manager or mentor was able to help them improve on one of their skills, specifying how the feedback was relayed, how they were able to implement the feedback; this is an effort to understand the type of management style they thrive with to ensure it’s going to be a great fit moving forward. We have also found that an excellent measure for cultural fit is to ask candidates what they find personally motivating – this helps not only in the hiring process but also as we endeavor to retain outstanding employees; it helps us to know what they are looking for as an outcome in their career.

No one is a master of all four pillars but look for people who embrace them as a goal. For a long time, I found it difficult to trust others enough to delegate my responsibilities to them so I could handle bigger tasks, but with the right people in place, I can now trust them enough to step back and focus on growing the agency. I had to work at it, but setting an ideal of trust forced me to learn so I could model it for others. When you start with the right people who hold the right set of values, they sustain a productive company culture – all you have to do is trust the process.

By David Brenton
Executive Author

President & Co-Founder, BluShark Digital

David Brenton is the President of BluShark Digital, a marketing firm that develops and implements cutting-edge digital marketing strategies to help businesses stand out online. view profile

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