Delivering on Successful Company Culture

Over the course of my career I have worked for small companies and large companies. I have also worked for one of the top three largest companies in the world. I have worked contract roles overseas and full-time employee roles here in the United States. But, no matter the company, role, or country, the one common thread amongst all of these companies was culture. A company’s culture is something that can happen organically, but if you want an award winning culture it takes a lot more than blind luck.

A company’s culture is something that can happen organically, but if you want an award winning culture it takes a lot more than blind luck.

In all of my experiences I have learned what I did like and what I did not like. I have found that small companies often fall back onto a “family” culture. These cultures are more organic, because more of their time is spent on execution and keeping the lights on. Cultures in these companies are often shaped from the ground up and even different offices within the company can have different ways of doing things. Company culture matters to these leaders, but there is usually not enough time to tend to it properly. These cultures are initially inviting, but can easily turn toxic due to expectations not being set upfront. Employees start working more hours to keep up, they start to feel neglected by management, and resentment begins to build. “Hard work” is rewarded, setting the incentive to work even more hours and burnout becomes reality–not just a buzzword.

Larger companies, on the other hand, have more resources to invest in their company culture. Some of the largest companies focus on culture to the point of the occult. Employees are often required to review documentation that reinforces the culture of the company frequently. At AWS this is accomplished through their Leadership Principles, which are used all throughout new hire orientation and beyond. These cultures are some of the best, in my humble opinion. These cultures are nurtured, cultivated, and well-tended in order to make employees’ lives better. They can also inspire a healthy work-life balance when leadership decides that “burnout will not be tolerated.” Ultimately, these cultures are cultivated from the top-down.

A good culture is more than a set of values; it is a shared belief that people inherently have worth and value.

Yet, there are large companies that do not focus on culture, such as those that have high turn-over rates due to positions being of a contractual nature. These companies could build a culture, but leadership might feel it is not worth the effort and turn a blind eye to the matter instead. Many of these companies are owned by hedge fund managers and profitability is the main focus. Once again, toxicity is not kept at bay and resentment builds, further increasing turn-over. It’s a vicious cycle, but as long as the company remains profitable, it is allowed to proliferate.

There are hallmarks to great cultures. I have encountered them at AWS and Shipt.

  • People are valued and respected over all else
  • Failure is not only tolerated, but celebrated
  • Burnout is not ignored
  • Time away from work is encouraged
  • Results are rewarded, not screen time
  • More people ask questions over handing out dictum
  • Everyone’s input is heard and considered
  • People are given ownership, trust, and autonomy
  • Egotism is not tolerated
  • Feedback is provided quickly and frequently
  • Bias for action is promoted

This list is in no way exhaustive. Other cultures may have different hallmarks, but I have noticed many of these listed above in cultures that were supported and cultivated. Employees in these cultures guarded it, demonstrated it, and deeply appreciated it. Experience in toxic cultures, like those that are left to chance and blind luck, is often enough to drive these behaviors in great cultures.

Great cultures are not a fortunate accident. They take work, acceptance, and buy-in from leadership. Employees can detect when a culture is not authentic, which will only drive resentment and toxicity. A good culture is more than a set of values; it is a shared belief that people inherently have worth and value.

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