This article is an excerpt from Jack Altman’s book, People Strategy: How to Invest in People and Make Culture Your Competitive Advantage.
Company culture is such a critical component of People strategy. But what exactly is culture?
Company culture is the summation of all the thousands of interactions, norms, and behaviors at a company. Culture is also the vehicle through which employees can attain a meaningful work experience.
Over the years for many of us, our relationship with our work has changed for the better. Our teams today have very different needs and expectations of their leaders and of companies than those in previous decades. We no longer want companies simply to provide us with something to do for five days out of every week and give us a paycheck. We want them to help us grow and align with our beliefs and causes. This has only become more pronounced as cultural headwinds, such as the coronavirus pandemic, force many to transition into remote work settings.
The Reason You Get Out of Bed in the Morning
Through my work with thousands of customers and hundreds of employees, I’ve observed that most people look for three key attributes to be truly dedicated and engaged in their work: purpose, community, and growth. These are the three pillars that serve as the foundation of a strong company culture. Ideally, each of these elements is strong all the time.
The reality, however, is that it’s often challenging to always be firing on all cylinders at once. But by dedicating attention and resources to each, organizations can build a solid bedrock for meaningful work and employee success.
Purpose is simple. It’s what gives meaning to our lives. It’s the reason we get out of bed every day. It’s why we spend most of the waking hours of our adult lives working and doing what we do.
The way we find meaning in our careers is by seeing a clear connection between our personal purpose and how we spend our time at work. When we have that alignment, purpose becomes a way to understand the contributions we make to both our company and to society as a whole. It’s this meaning that allows us to be fully engaged in, and dedicated to, the work we do day in and day out.
I try not to make a habit out of recommending self-help books, but if I have one to recommend, it’s How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. One thing that Carnegie talks about early on in the book is that one of the most fundamental human desires is the need to feel important. This might sound selfish, and in some ways it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It can be channeled to do something great, and it can be channeled into great work for a company that people believe helps the world and has an impact.
There’s no one “right” purpose; it’s different for everyone. For some people, it may mean working for a company like charity: water (https://www.charitywater.org/) that has a social mission to build technology to help global communities get clean drinking water. For others, it may mean working for a company like Slack (https://slack.com/) which transformed communication at work for millions of people around the world.
Regardless of how you define success, knowing that your work matters to the world and that you have a chance to make a dent in the universe is so important to employees. And so, recognizing that, honoring that, and talking about it is very valuable when you’re thinking about building your company.
In fact, I believe that the articulation of a company’s purpose, and how it connects back to employees’ purpose, is one of the most critical aspects of a leader’s role. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not always easy. First, landing on your company’s purpose – identifying why we exist and why we should continue to exist – can be a contentious and grueling exercise.
At Lattice, it took a lot of time and a lot of work to cultivate that answer. To first identify it and then sew it into the fabric of the company required serious reflection. What was our mission? Who was our product for? What kind of dent did we want to make in the world? And then there’s the challenge of rallying the company around it on an ongoing basis, continually reminding and reinforcing the message.
Oftentimes, you have to make a choice between talking about the operational aspects of the business and talking about the inspirational aspects. Too often, leaders lean to the former and don’t give enough airtime to the latter. But when leaders are able to establish and keep that connection, they find that employees use it as fuel. Their enthusiasm serves as a self-perpetuating meaning machine: they share stories, speak passionately about what the company stands for, share personal lessons, and yes, put more discretionary effort toward achieving operational goals.
Then there’s community, which consists of the small groups, teams, or even the entire organization in which employees find trust, strong communication, respect, equality, and cooperation. Thriving internal communities amplify collective efforts to be made into something bigger and better than any individual employee could create on their own. Companies famous for their culture, like Apple, Google, and Nike, have created an entire ethos beyond merely selling products. Employees stand for a common goal or mission in which each member of the group is willing to contribute toward progress, and through this shared purpose and identity, strong relationships are formed. Community and purpose, in this way, go hand in hand, feeding into one another and bringing employees closer together.
I’ll never forget the moment I realized that such a community had developed at Lattice. It was in the early days, and we had just moved the company from its previous home – in the one-bedroom apartment we were renting – to an actual office. I was walking down the stairs one day – from the second floor to the first, where most of our team worked – and I realized that I had a full view of the floor. People were huddled up behind computer screens. Some were sitting together, eating food and laughing. Others were headed out for a walk to get a coffee. It hit me: These people like each other. They’re having fun together. These folks are friends.
It was a powerful moment. I had moved to San Francisco when I was 23. It was a new city for me, and the first friends that I made were through my job. My work was also my community. My coworkers – my fellow team members – were my people. The realization that we had built a place where other people were now forging those same kinds of connections, where this community was being fostered, nearly brought me to tears. After all, I knew how much being part of a community had meant to me.
This sense of community is a beautiful thing. It creates a sense of belonging that can motivate members to elevate their performance and dedication to what they care about most. Isolation, by contrast, creates hopelessness. We can’t impact the complexities of the world and face up to major issues – like the coronavirus crisis or the movement for social and racial justice – without the support of others.
Community is very important to employees today, and there are a couple of reasons why. One potential reason is that work relationships have become stronger as companies have taken a more important role in employees’ lives as more “traditional” communities like church or neighborhood have perhaps become less important. Another possible explanation is that the rise of the Internet and technology has led to a more globalized world. And as a result, the city, the nation, and the neighborhood have become less important constructs for people. You could even point to the decline of religion in major cities where this third community outside work and home has become less deep in our lives and, as a result, employees are seeking that more at work.
Whatever the reason, employees today have a deep hunger for community in their workplace. They want to be part of something. Community is a basic human need, and the workplace, more than ever, serves that. As such, it’s important to know as people leaders that embracing challenge is not just OK, it’s actually critical. Community, in many ways, is forged in the hardest of times. One that comes to mind for me is that I remember early on at Lattice, during the first six months, we were really struggling, and we just couldn’t get our product to work, and customers weren’t taking to it. We’d been going for months, and my co-founder Eric and I were lying on the grass somewhere and we were just so done. We said, “Should we give up? It’s so difficult.” And we committed to each other that we were going to keep going for the other one. And that was the beginning of community. That was the first thing that we had at Lattice.
Another hard time was in 2017. I personally had a very tough period where my wife had a miscarriage, and I also had a parent pass away unexpectedly. It was one of the most difficult times of my life. But the company just embraced me and made me feel so supported, and I knew that we would all do that for each other. This inspired me and made me think, “Man, I will fight for this company. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what would be happening.”
Those are the moments that build community. Those are the trusting moments where you get through something hard together. And so, when you think about community at your companies and what employees need, it is not just about the celebrations and the parties and the cupcakes. Although those are great, and you should do them. But a lot of it is about those difficult moments where you commit to each other and you reaffirm your commitment to be a community together. That’s what employees are seeking.
This sense of purpose and community can also help foster growth. Helping employees shape the future direction of their careers is rarely a focus in many organizations. Too often, companies are hyper-focused on the here and now, devoting the bulk of their attention to day-to-day operations at the expense of the bigger picture. While this meets short-term initiatives, it leaves them poorly equipped for success in the long run. The trouble is, many managers often find themselves too pressed for time to consider each employee’s goals, strengths, areas for improvement, and the like, or simply don’t know where to start. Areas of focus and development are deeply personal to each employee and cannot follow cookie-cutter guidelines. It’s critical for employees and managers to be able to work together to build clear, personalized career development plans so that each individual has a clear picture of what their path forward could look like.
But it’s not just individual growth that’s necessary, it’s organizational growth, too. Not long after I founded Lattice, I did a series of interviews with various business and thought leaders, asking questions about the keys to building a good company culture. When I posed that question to Katelin Holloway, vice president of people and culture at Reddit, she told me that a winning, thriving company was most important.
This answer initially surprised me. “Isn’t it deeper than that?” I thought. But, as Holloway explained to me, it’s an environment of growth that allows for all the other things that make a culture strong. Growth provides fertile ground for employees to take on new responsibilities, new roles, and new problems. That really stuck with me. An environment where people can’t help but grow – that leads to great cultures.
Of course, growth can mean a lot of different things, as we learned during the pandemic. As COVID-19 gripped America and the world, Lattice’s growth slowed, just as it did at many companies. We weren’t promoting as many managers. Employees may not have been taking on new roles at the same rate, or any of the other things that we associated with growth before the pandemic. But also, as a company and as individuals, we have built some new muscles. We’ve learned things about ourselves. We’ve learned how to respond to challenges. We’ve learned how to do more with less. That’s growth, too.
Growth is the pursuit of improvement and progress that’s core to the human experience. Purpose is knowing that what you’re working on matters – that you’re making that dent in the universe and that the work you do is felt and improves the lives of other people. And community is that sense of belonging and that fundamental need to be part of a group working toward that same purpose and progress. The combination of all of these things is what people really want out of work.
Culture is the vehicle we use to deliver these pillars of a successful, meaningful business. Companies with strong company cultures face the same challenges as companies that don’t. But building these three things into your company culture will make it so much easier to navigate those challenges, and to give your employees the motivation and inspiration to work through them.
This has never been clearer than during the coronavirus pandemic. The defining characteristic of the business climate in 2020 was uncertainty. How can a business leader make hard decisions when it’s unclear what the next three months – let alone the next year – will look like? Do you shift entirely to remote work? Are you going to have to lay off employees or enact furloughs? These decisions are never easy to make, but that’s especially so when the future is so hazy. That’s where your company values kick in. They are your rock – a stabilizing force that provides at least some sense of clarity where there is little to be found.
HR teams likely already know this at some level. But for CEOs, the value of a strong culture is not always immediately apparent. Having happy employees is important, yes – but is it as crucial as organizational efficiency to a healthy bottom line? But having a strong culture isn’t just about ensuring that those who work at your company are fulfilled and enjoying a sense of purpose and community and personal growth. Prioritizing culture and values is a critical strategic boon to any business, making an organization more efficient and nimble. When I had that bird’s eye view over the office and saw the community that had developed at my company, I saw too that it was now bigger than me. There are some founders who might be troubled by that realization. It can be scary to realize that a company you worked so hard to build is capable of evolving on its own, without your fingerprints on every aspect of the organization. But for me, finding that Lattice didn’t need me constantly to be breathing life into it in order to survive was freeing: there was so much it allowed me to focus on instead. Without a strong culture, executive teams tend to spend much more time working on repairs. A good culture, by contrast, is self-healing, taking care of itself organically. Likewise, companies with unhealthy organizational cultures tend to get bogged down by politics, internal bickering, or any number of other distractions. On the other hand, companies with a robust culture in place tend to be free of these toxic inefficiencies, making it easier to adapt and move forward.
That capability has always separated successful companies from less successful ones. But now, in a time when the business world is on the cusp of significant change thanks to the pandemic and other headwinds, the ability to evolve is more vital than ever. Of course, even having a culture that unites employees in common purpose, fosters a sense of community, and encourages growth won’t make an organization immune from the challenges wrought by the pandemic or any other new challenges that may come our way. Further, the pillars might not all be firing on all cylinders at the same time. A company might endure a difficult time for growth – during the pandemic, for instance – by binding even closer together as a community, committing ourselves even more to our shared purpose. A good culture may be dynamic, but that dynamic, adaptive quality can get you through hard times.
Companies put a lot of strategic planning into creating clear go-to-market and product strategies each year. Why aren't we doing the same for defining our People strategy? It’s critical that executives and HR leaders not only plan how our companies will engage with employees but also how they will achieve their goals.
Over the years working with thousands of companies, Lattice has learned what it means to be a people-centric company. In People Strategy, we want to give executives, HR leaders, and even managers a framework for transforming their company into one that's people-centric, building and maintaining a healthy culture of high performance.
If you want to learn more about how Lattice can help enable all these important practices at your company, book a Lattice demo to see our products and platform in action.