Building a Strong Workplace Culture (7 Tips from Alfred Lin)

Company culture is the cornerstone of success. Learn how to build one that every employee will want to be a part of.

Ask any successful business owner about their most important resource and they’ll tell you one thing:

People.

You can have an abundance of all other resources, but without the right people none of them will create success.

This is why it’s important to master the art of building a strong company culture.

If you need some advice, here you’ll get to learn from an expert on the matter.

Alfred Lin is a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital and the former CFO, COO and chairman of Zappos. Decades of strong leadership have thought him the formula for creating a culture that fuels business success.

And he’s generous to tell others how to do the same.

Without further ado, let’s get into some of Lin’s most valuable nuggets of wisdom.

1. Start at the Top

Success of any sort starts with good leadership. As a business owner, it’s your job to guide all your resources in the right direction. 

This is especially important when it comes to building a company culture. Before you define a set of values that your stakeholders have, you need to think about your own.

As Lin explains:

‘You have to start with the leader of the company and the founder, and ask yourself: What are the values that are the most important to you?’

From there, you need to choose the most important things for your business. In addition, you have to align your personal values with those that your business requires to succeed.

You then need to keep working your way down and think about the values of the people you work with.

Lin says that the best approach to this is to think about the people you never enjoyed working with. Identify the worst things about your working with them and do the opposite.

By doing all of the above, you can encompass the most important values of everyone involved in your business. You can unite them under one set of values that they will all believe in.

 

2. Tie Your Values to Your Mission

Your business’ mission is the most important guide to success. It shows you the ultimate goal that you’re trying to achieve and that you’ll focus all your resources on.

Naturally, it’s of the utmost importance for your values to be in alignment with it. The values need to support your mission so that the collective mindset of your business moves towards the biggest goal.

When defining Zappos’ company culture, Lin’s main goal was to deliver outstanding customer service.

In his words:

‘We are very specific that we wanted to deliver great customer service and it was going to be a ‘wow’ experience.’

This ‘wow’ service was the core value of Zappos, around which Lin built the whole value system. 

This experience doesn’t just apply to customers. Lin’s goal was to make sure that his value system supports every employee, brand partner, and investor. This way, everyone would be on the same page and could work towards the mission together.

3. Focus on a Few Core Values

Even as your personal values are the starting point when building a culture, you need to pay special attention to those of your employees. Everybody should be able to have a say in what your company culture will look like.

This is why you need to ask your employees to create a list of their most important values.

At Zappos, this endeavour took up to a year. This might seem like an awful lot of time for coming up with words like honesty, teamwork, integrity, and such.

However, all that time ended up very well used, as Zappos’ goal was to dig as deep as possible into each and every single one of those values.

Rather than vague statements that are subject to interpretation, Lin wanted to break down each value so that they can choose the most important ones.

By the time this process was over, the company had a list of 37 values. They later narrowed it down to about 10. And each of those was carefully broken down so that everyone knows exactly what it means.

For example, teamwork didn’t just mean that people work together. Lin puts it as follows:

‘We wanted everyone to build off each other and help each other make any idea better. The result is that the company gets a better idea, not that any individual person is right.’

When choosing the core values of your culture, make sure that it’s not just a list of words. Dissect the value of each and make sure that everybody fully understands what it means.

4. Facilitate Trust, Commitment, and Accountability

It goes without saying that you need to develop an atmosphere of trust in your company. Your people need to know that they can express themselves and rely on others to provide support and honest input.

This is necessary to encouraging constructive conflicts and debates in lieu of the destructive ones. If properly used, conflicts can be one of the most important parts of your culture.

‘If you don’t have conflicts and debate, it’s the blind leading the blind,’ explains Lin.

With open debates, you can rest assured that you’ll come to the right decision. This is where the next important factor comes into play – commitment.

When they make a decision, your people need to go all in. If anyone doubts the decision, this won’t happen. This is why everybody needs to have an honest discussion about what you’re trying to do with the company.

However, commitment isn’t easy to facilitate. You need to make sure that the people will work because they truly want to and not because they have to. The latter is more likely to make them give up at a certain point than anything.

The second part of commitment is accountability. According to Lin:

‘If people are not held accountable to the things that they committed to, then they can’t get results.’

Make sure that everybody knows exactly what their role is and what it takes to assume it. This way you’ll be able to pinpoint the cause of any issue that may arise along the way.

 

5. Interview for the Right Culture Fit

Choosing the right people for the right positions is vital to business success. Leaders know this, which is why they go out of their way to find people who fit the job description as closely as possible.

But there’s an issue here. During recruitment, most leaders focus too much on skills and competencies. They look at resumes, ask position-related questions, and see if the candidate has the right skillset.

But what about the mindset?

Make no mistake, this can be much more important than your employee’s ability to do the job right.

Lin clarifies as such:

‘I think you can have the smartest engineer in the world, but if they don’t believe the mission they are not going to pour their heart and soul into it.’

This is why you need to stop being skill-centric during interviews and pay more attention to the culture fit. Make sure that your business values fall in line with the candidate’s. It’s a lot easier to teach skills than values.

Without a fit in the latter, your new employee might feel like they don’t belong. This requires a lot more effort than looking for a person that fits the culture from the start.

6. Evaluate Culture Performance

By now, you likely have a good idea of what it takes to build a strong company culture. Now it’s time to focus on understanding how to maintain it.

The most important thing that you need to remember is that you must always revisit your company culture. It’s not a given that everyone will abide by it, or if it’s even suitable, for the entire life of your business.

Your culture needs to morph as your business evolves while still staying true to its core.

As your business grows, there will be many changes. Your culture needs to adapt to them. But it also needs to ensure that the ship stays on course.

The good news is that this isn’t something that you’ll have to struggle with.

You only have to review the performance of your culture on a regular basis. You can do this like how you’d evaluate any tangible form of performance.

Every once in a while, check in with your teams to see if they still feel like a part of your company culture. This will ensure that they don’t feel alienated and still believe in the values of your business.

7. Make It a Daily Habit

The final thing that Lin suggests is to make sure that you live your culture every day.

Lin goes on to say:

‘Everybody wants to provide great customer service, every company wants to have great culture. What they fail to do is make it a daily habit.’

He explains that every lasting change needs to be a daily habit. You can’t be fit unless you make a good diet and exercise a daily habit. Or you’ll get out of shape and eventually grow fat.

Your company culture works the same way. If you don’t practice it with your team on a daily basis, they’ll lose touch with the values.

Instead of trying to fix a culture that’s falling apart, it’s way more productive to make sure that your team nurtures it with their every action.

Unite and Inspire

Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what it takes to build a culture that will get your business to where you want it to be. If you follow Lin’s advice, you’ll be able to develop a culture that unites all your people under one core mission.

What’s more, it will motivate them to keep growing both personally and professionally. The growth of your business as a whole would be a natural consequence.

Don’t forget to involve everyone in the creation of your culture. More importantly, make sure that it stays vibrant and remains relevant to long-term success. If you can make this happen, you’ll have a business culture that can be your greatest asset against the competition.

 

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