Forget Rec Rooms: the 3 Pillars of Real Company Culture

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WorldLet’s play a word association game: when I say “company culture,” what words come to mind?

If you’re like a lot of newbies in the talent world, you might be thinking “beanbag chairs,” “happy hour,” “free food,” or “massage tables” (if you’re especially indulgent).

But if you’re like Emmanuel Tahar, CEO and cofounder of research firm Cognolink, a few other, less sexy terms come to mind: “operating principles,” “ongoing dialogue,” “cultural custodians,” and “consistent application,” to name a few.

Tahar says that his terms — flashy or not — get to the real heart of company culture. Things like ping-pong tables and on-site barbers are the “low-hanging fruit” of culture: these are the easiest, most immediate things a company can do to project the image of a certain type of organizational culture, but they won’t really build something strong, lasting, or influential.

Plus, Tahar says, job seekers see through all the glitz and the glam more easily than you might think: “What we find is that people are extremely sophisticated, even in their first jobs. They take a very holistic view of the company. You can wave at them ping-pong tables and food and whatnot, but that’s not what they care about. They want to understand really deeply what the company believes in.”

According to Tahar, presenting what the company believes in — the “why” of the company, as he calls it — is a crucial component of recruiting, especially when courting millennial candidates (60 percent of millennials consider a company’s purpose when deciding whether or not to work there). But before your company can flaunt its beliefs, it needs to actually have beliefs worth flaunting — that is, it needs to build a strong company culture. In order to do so, Tahar says companies need to focus on three pillars of company culture:

Dialogue, People, and Leadership: the Crucial Components of a Thriving Company Culture

When a company is just starting out, it may not need to worry too much about company culture, Tahar says.

“When you start, when you are very small, the culture is very much defined by observing the behavior of the founders, what sort of operating principles they use, what sort of people they attract, and how they work with their teams,” Tahar explains. “It goes without saying. It’s implicit. Nobody really needs to worry about it.”

But as the company grows, simply observing the founders becomes difficult (if not impossible), so perpetuating a strong, affecting company culture requires a little more effort and a little more structure.

Pillar 1: an Ongoing Dialogue About What Makes the Company Special

Tahar stresses that this is different from simply working collaboratively with team members and colleagues. This is about actually acknowledging the company culture and talking about what makes the company different from other companies. This is about verbalizing what often goes unsaid.

The ongoing dialogue must cut across all levels of the company, too. It cannot simply be a series of top-down edicts (that’s not much a dialogue, is it?).

“You have to get people involved in defining the culture,” Tahar says.

Pillar 2: Make Smart Talent Decisions

The people who work at a company play a huge role in creating and perpetuating the company culture, of course. Many of us know this, but we can easily forget it when making hiring decisions — especially in periods of rapid business expansion.

“Hiring and developing people is a challenge for any company, but especially when you are growing very quickly, sometimes you can cut corners,” Tahar says. “You can hire someone who is going to be a good performer but not a team player, or you can promote someone who is going to do a good job but who does not believe in the culture of the company.”

This, Tahar says, is a good way to undermine the company culture you’ve worked so hard to build. “You don’t want to do that,” he says. “You want to be very true to the operating principles when it comes to the sort of people you work with at the company.”

Pillar 3: Appoint Custodians of Culture

Much like any other aspect of business, a company culture cannot thrive unless someone is supervising it. To this end, Tahar suggests building “a layer of people that become the custodians of culture.” These would be people who are the most knowledgeable about what makes the company special, people who can embrace the culture and eloquently spread the message, people who can hold others accountable for aligning with the culture.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you appoint a team of culture dictators: remember, every employee has to play a role in the ongoing dialogue that creates and perpetuates company culture. Rather, the “custodians of culture” are simply the people who watch over the culture and make sure it stays strong and vibrant.

You Have a Strong Company Culture — Now Let You Employees Spread It!

As mentioned above, Tahar believes presenting a strong company culture is key to attracting the best talent for your organization. But how, exactly, do you do that?

“It’s about giving [job seekers] insight into the company,” Tahar says. “It’s not just presenting them with the impact we have on clients, or the technical skills that we have, or the actual product that we deliver. It’s about opening the doors to the company and telling them, ‘This is how we work together.'”

To open those doors, Tahar suggests that companies let their junior voices be heard. Let employees of all levels — but especially junior levels — share their experiences with the company. Feature these testimonials on social media platforms, company websites, career portals, and so on. Let candidates hear from the people who really know the culture.

“That way, people know it’s not just the CEO telling them something, and then once they work there, it is completely different,” Tahar says. “[People] can tell that this company cares, has a purpose, and that people believe in it.”

Send out a message like that, and the best and brightest candidates will come flocking.

By Matthew Kosinski