There’s nothing more important to businesses of any size than being intentional about creating a workplace culture that will attract, engage, and retain the talent you need to fuel your growth. For small or midsize businesses (SMBs), culture building is especially critical because it sets the foundation for future success.
This year at Dreamforce, I had the honor of moderating and participating in a small business executive breakfast panel with Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work and Laszlo Bock, CEO and co-founder of Humu. We discussed best practices for building a strong company culture that will grow with your business.
There were about 300 SMB executives who had the opportunity to attend in person, but the insights that came out of this panel were too good not to share with the whole SMB community! Below are some of the best tidbits that came out of the panel that I hope any business can use to help create a culture that is built to scale.
What is culture?
Michael Bush: “Culture is the feeling. It’s the thing that makes you really want to go to work or what makes you really not want to go to work. It cuts both ways.”
Laszlo Bock: "Your culture should be your decision code. It’s what you should rely on to make difficult decisions at difficult times, by reminding you who you are."
Why does it matter?
Michael Bush: “It pays. It’s good for people, it’s good for the world, and you make money, too.”
Jody Kohner: “It’s your main differentiator. Think about it: The day-to-day tasks of any job — whether it’s an account executive or a software engineer — are essentially the same no matter where you work. What’s different is the people you do your job with and the environment you do it in, and that comes down to culture.”
What culture advice do you have specifically for small business leaders?
Michael Bush: “When you’re running a small business, there’s so much work to do. You’re small, and you’re wearing multiple hats. Sometimes when we pick a leader, we pick an outstanding individual performer, but maybe they aren’t a good people leader. We call it the “unintentional leader”. This is a mistake we see more often in small businesses out of necessity, but you need to be extra thoughtful when you’re a small business because that decision sets the tone for your business for years to come. You need strong leaders because a small business can’t afford to lose good talent because the IP is in people’s heads.”
Laszlo Bock: “Culture at small scale is way harder. When you’re big, you have a lot of people to help, and jerks can be avoided. When you are small, every jerk matters and every negative behavior matters. The way to protect your culture is to quickly reset the culture and recover when negative things happen. You need to be very thoughtful about the moments that matter. As leaders, everyone in the company is watching you all the time, so every small thing you do embodies the culture. If you lose your mind and act out when you lose a deal, people remember that. If you stay calm and positive, that sets the tone.”
What are some of the warning signs that culture is not going to scale?
Michael Bush: “Fast growth – you’re so busy doing the work thing, that you forget the people thing.”
Laszlo Bock: “Too much homogeny: people look the same, think the same, behave the same, come from the same perspective. This creates a monoculture, which can lead to massive blind spots and can be a warning sign that your culture is not going to scale. There are a lot of reasons diversity matters. The main business reason is that in situations when people feel psychological safety they outperform.”
How do you build a great company culture?
Jody Kohner: “Be intentional. When our founders started Salesforce, they were as intentional about the company culture they wanted to create as they were about the products they wanted to build and how they would go to market. Two core programs that create an incredible sense of purpose and belonging in our people and are still at the heart of everything we do today, started when we were small – our 1-1-1 integrated corporate philanthropy model and our V2MOM business planning process. You can read more about both on Trailhead.”
Michael Bush: “It starts with humility. Companies that are arrogant ultimately crumble. Find an objective way to find out what people are experiencing, and then analyze it to continuously improve. Don’t assume that conversations occurring accurately reflect the health of your leadership and your culture. You need to know as a leader, what are the things you need to work on? And trust me, everyone has things they need to work on.”
Laszlo Bock: “Fundamentally, human beings want the same things: people want to find meaning; people want to be trusted, and people want to be empowered. Get a source of truth, not just qualitative, but a valid scientific instrument that gives you direction on what you need to do. Then, you need to act. Get agreement among leadership on what you need to do – might be trust, might be fairness – it’s different for every business. Finally, the hardest thing – activate everyone in your company, so everyone down to the last employee feels the action. Make sure there isn’t a gap between your espoused values and what each person experiences.”
How do you address the “It’s not the same as it used to be here as you transition from small to midsize to big company?”
Laszlo Bock: “People who are predisposed to gratitude stay happy. The others you have to work to instill it in. That’s why you need constant nudges to encourage things like gratitude.”
Michael Bush: “When you double click on survey results of fast-growing companies there are varying experiences among employees. When this is happening, what we see often is that some leaders are clinging to the old ways and talking about the good old days. Ultimately, this hurts morale. The leadership group needs to get aligned and be looking to the future and find an inspiring way to talk about that, and they need to be asking if everyone is in. It starts at the top. The people are a reflection of what’s at the top.”
Read our earlier Laszlo Bock interview for more on how culture is an essential growth component for his new business, Humu.
For more expert advice on growing your small business, download this eBook on secrets to business growth from four successful small business leaders.
Jody Kohner is the Senior Vice President of the Employee Marketing & Engagement team at Salesforce. The span of her work ranges from managing the employer brand reputation and recruitment marketing initiatives to onboarding new hires and all sorts of awesome programs designed to make employees love their job. Connect with her on Twitter at @JodyKohner.