Five Things Companies With Iconic Cultures Do Differently

On the surface it’s easy to confuse building a great culture with superficial perks—pingpong tables, rewards days, free food and unlimited time off are some of the more material elements we associate with ‘culture’ as a result of what we see in the media.

The reality is while perks are fun at first, the novelty tends to wear off very quickly. The people you want in your organisation are not the people who get excited about a cupboard full of free snacks…they’re the people who appreciate being challenged, held accountable and having a sense of purpose every day. 

In this article, we’ve dived into some of the elements that define the world-famous cultures so many companies aspire to recreate.

1. Google: It’s important to celebrate wins, but it’s equally important to celebrate failure

No list of companies with outstanding cultures would be complete without Google. While there are a number of factors that have contributed to Google’s culture of success, one thing they do that can be easily applied to a number of businesses (even if you don’t have the Google ‘pull’ factor’) is the way they use  employee recognition for small and big contributions. 

Google recognises that appreciation is the best way to reward employees for their contributions. Recognition like The Founders’ Award provides incentives for employees to do the best work they can do, the rewards from which, paid in the form of Google Stock Units that vest over time, are pretty enticing.

But as much as Google likes to seize opportunities to acknowledge strong performances, the company is equally willing to celebrate failure as well.

When Sheryl Sandberg made a mistake that cost Google several million dollars, she admitted her error to co-founder Larry Page, whose famous response sums up the company’s attitude on failure: “I’m so glad you made this mistake,” he said. “Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much, not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.”

Employee appreciation leads to a fearless office culture, where people are more willing to take risks. More risk, while daunting, means more fresh ideas that may be what a company needs to rise to the next level.

2. Zappos: Hire for culture, not just for skill 

Zappos has become almost as well known for its culture as it is for the shoes that it sells online. What does that culture look like?

Zappos hires according to cultural fit first and foremost. It has established what the company culture is, and fitting into that culture is the most important thing managers look for when hiring. This promotes the culture and happy employees, which ultimately leads to happy customers.

This process starts with a cultural fit interview, which carries half the weight of whether the candidate is hired. New employees are offered $2 000 to quit after the first week of training if they decide the job isn’t for them. Ten core values are instilled in every team member. Employee raises come from workers who pass skills tests and exhibit increased capability, not from office politics. Portions of the budget are dedicated to employee team building and culture promotion.

Zappos believe when you get the company culture right, great customer service and a great brand will happen on its own.

3. Netflix: Operate like a high-performance sports team 

While a lot of businesses with outstanding cultures consider themselves “family”, Netflix has a unique approach to culture. Their ideology is founded upon the idea that a business should operate like a high-performance sports team. Netflix only hires people who can work effectively as part of a team, avoiding ‘superstars’ with bad attitudes or poor work ethics. While each team member needs to support each other, they also need to pull their own weight to ensure the company achieves its goals. 

One unique element that Netflix managers use to determine if someone is the right fit is the “Keeper Test”. The Keeper Test asks managers, “If someone on my team told me he was leaving for a similar job at a peer company, would I fight hard to keep him here?” If the answer is no, then they should be given a nice severance package. In their research, they found that the best are two times more effective than average in procedural work, and ten times more effective than average in creative work. Therefore, they understand the importance of high performers and don’t tolerate anything less.

4. Meltwater: Get your values right, they are the heart of your culture

Like many companies, values are at the core of Meltwater’s culture, where employees follow the acronym MER—the Norwegian word for “more.” MER stands for three other Norwegian words: moro, enere, and respekt.

Moro, or “fun,” stems from the belief that the company’s success is dependent on people enjoying themselves in the workplace, whereas enere, or “No. 1,” comes from the belief that people should aspire to exceed their own personal expectations.

With respekt, or “respect,” comes the belief that being the best shouldn’t compromise your principles. Reaching your objectives means nothing if you can’t do it with humility and respect.

5. Dropbox: Trust your people to do what they’re good at

Dropbox is all about freedom. Jon Ying, one of Dropbox’s first employees, recounts working with co-founder Arash Ferdowski:

One day, Ferdowsi told him he didn’t want Dropbox’s “404 error” page to be so boring. “I remember you like to draw,” he told Ying. So Ferdowsi bought some colored pencils at the Walgreens downstairs, and Ying drew up “Psychobox“.

Ferdowsi’s next leap was, “If you know how to draw, you can do Web design.” So he grabbed a pirated copy of Photoshop, and Ying started doing early Dropbox design work.

Dropbox essentially operates on the principle of “you’re smart, figure it out”. Ferdowsi and Houston simply identified what people are good at and let them do it. They trusted their talent with important work.

As you can see, none of the unique elements that have contributed to creating these world-famous company cultures are material elements. While a free weekly breakfast, or fun team building day never hurts, make sure you’re focussing on the fundamentals first and foremost within your organisation, and don’t let  ‘perks’ fool you into thinking you’re getting culture right.

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