But the truth of the matter is that at most organizations, culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast — it’s barely a snack. Culture often takes a back seat to sales, product-market fit, product development, growth, and scale — and far too many leaders believe you can ignore it, outsource it, or do a one-time company off-site and check culture off the list.
For companies where culture is truly a competitive advantage, it’s not an HR priority; it’s a business priority. The best leaders in the world understand that the single most precious resource for any growing organization, regardless of size and industry, is remarkably talented people. For all the talk about Google’s perks, what they have done better than any tech company on the planet over the last decade is identify truly exceptional people and give them a lot of runway to create incredible things.
Culture is the environment you create to attract and retain great talent, a bar for what’s possible in your organization, and a promise to your customers on the types of people they can expect to engage with in doing business with you.
At HubSpot, our founders (like most founders) spent the first few years of our business on product-market fit and execution. But they had an ambitious goal — to build an anchor company that would outlast them, and they quickly realized doing that would require a work environment that was truly different. So while HubSpot’s product helps companies rethink the way they market and sell to match how modern consumers shop and buy, they set out in parallel to construct a company that redefined how people live and work on a daily basis.
Our co-founder, Dharmesh Shah, wrote The Culture Code, a document that has now amassed more than 2M views on SlideShare, and we’ve been fortunate to win global recognition for being a best place to work. But the most important work we do on culture occurs every single day in how we lead, manage, hire, fire, and build and share our employment brand. Below I’ve outlined five ways to make culture a top priority in your organization:
Decide What You Stand For … And Write It Down
Many executives I talk to say “we don’t need to write down our culture like you guys do, our employees know what our culture is about.” My litmus test for whether or not that’s true is whether your newest (first 30 days at the company) or most junior employees can answer what your culture stands for, unprompted. How do their responses align with those that your leadership team gives? If there’s a gap, you have a problem. Your employment brand is only as strong and clear as it is consistent among groups and levels within your organization, so the easiest way to communicate your vision for culture as you scale is investing the time to codify it.
In the grand scheme of things, this sounds deceptively easy. The truth is, it’s incredibly hard. You will have spirited debate, your employees will have strong opinions and input (this is a good thing, by the way), and it will not be perfect the first time around. But if you don’t take a stand on what your culture stands for, you’re letting others do it for you, and it’s incredibly hard to scale that approach globally.
So my advice on writing it down is this: Make sure a founder or C-level employee is leading the charge, get employee input (but don’t wait for universal approval to ship it), and make the document public-facing. Far too many companies rely on internal wall posters to spread their culture with the world, but unless you plan on hosting as many visitors as Disneyland in the upcoming year for office tours and interviews, that’s a really tough way to attract candidates. So debate what your culture stands for, write it down, edit it, and ship it.
We are also constantly refactoring our culture to get it right, so the culture document you create should be more like the Constitution than the Ten Commandments — not etched in stone but flexible enough to address major changes that require updates.
Stand for Something
One of the biggest mistakes people make in thinking through their culture is trying to be all things to all people so as not to eliminate one remarkably smart person from being a potential candidate in your workforce.
This is a terrible idea.
In an effort to attract everyone, you will attract no one because you aren’t being honest about what it’s like to work at your organization. Really think about the types of people who thrive at your company and document the traits they have that constitute your special sauce.
With culture, if you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.
Facebook is known for its vintage commitment to “Move Fast and Break Things” as a developer ethos, and Pinterest has a strong culture around creativity and design. Uber has created a strong employment brand around big ambitions and little regard for the status quo. All of these companies have brands that send a strong message to consumers and candidates alike about what it’s like to work at their organizations.
Standing for something as it relates to culture doesn’t just help you attract folks who are a good fit for your team, it also helps people who aren’t a good match for your culture opt out of your company earlier on, making your recruiting funnel significantly more efficient.
Don’t try to be all things to all people; try to be a remarkable thing for the right people.
Embrace the Yelpification of Your Employment Brand
I get a lot of questions from people asking how our team “controls” our employment brand. You used to be able to control how people thought about working with your company, but now, any candidate is just a tweet, LinkedIn message, or Glassdoor review away from getting a lot more context on what it’s like to work within your organization. And I tend to think fighting the internet revolution is a mistake.
To that end, I’m a big believer in ceding control rather than trying to grasp it tightly. We actively engage with and respond to Glassdoor reviews, both positive and negative; we let our employees takeover the HubSpot Instagram on a weekly basis; and we actively encourage employees to share their experience at HubSpot on LinkedIn and their own blogs.
Does it mean we always hear exactly what we’d like? Certainly not. But in the age of social media, your brand perception is reality, so rather than watching from the sidelines, get in the game — your employees will appreciate the transparency and your company will benefit from the feedback on what’s working and what isn’t.
Think about the things you measure in a business: customers, users, profits, revenue, retention, adoption, etc. They are often the focus of regular meetings and discussion and the top priorities in any executive leadership meeting, board discussion, or strategy brainstorm. Given that, you can’t truly understand how you’re doing with your culture without measuring it on a regular basis.
Many companies do employee engagement surveys — I personally find most of those to be long and tedious.
Our approach is to measure employee happiness (using Net Promoter Score) on a quarterly basis. We survey all our employees, keep the questions short and sweet (three questions, max), and we publish the data (good, bad, and ugly) for the entire organization to see along with an action plan on how we are going to address the feedback employees shared with us.
In addition to employee happiness, we look at the success of our recruiting funnel and employee retention numbers as additional indicators of how we are faring on the culture side of things.
In most organizations, if you don’t measure it, you don’t manage it, so make sure culture is something you regularly check the gauges on in your company.
Build Culture Into Your Operating System
One of the ways culture goes off the rails is that it’s only a priority when your company is up for an award, when it’s review season, or when it becomes a pain point (a large group of people leave, you’re going through a big hiring push, etc). The best way to solve for that is to build culture and people into your core business operating system. At HubSpot, we have people and culture on our business priorities for the year alongside revenue, retention, and R&D goals. Doing so makes it abundantly clear that people aren’t an afterthought; they are a core driver of our business and deserve to be prioritized as such.
Another example I love comes from Expedia, where they use a program called Fresh Eyes to get feedback from brand new employees. Part of their culture is ongoing feedback, so rather than wait for someone to be at the company for six months before speaking up, Expedia creates a direct pipeline between its newest employees and its executive leadership team. Making that a core part of the company’s operating system means culture is top of mind for the company’s newest employees and that the leadership team is accustomed to getting feedback from the least experienced folks in the organization.
If your culture is relegated to wall posters and annual off-sites, you’re doing it wrong. Make it part of your business construct and you’ll have a whole lot more luck keeping it a top priority.
What does culture look like at your company? Is it front and center? Can a candidate understand it and explain it to someone else after visiting your office? Can someone visiting your jobs page get a sense of what it’s like to work there? What does the gap look like between your jobs page story and the story employees (past and present) tell about you? Do you measure it?
Chances are, at your organization, like many others, there’s an opportunity to give culture a starring role instead of a supporting one. Doing so requires significant time and energy, but prioritizing your culture and being maniacal about continuously improving it can deliver huge return for your business, your brand, and your bottom line.