How to Create an Effective Culture


Effective Culture

After 20 years of listening to my candidates’ reasons for leaving their employer I’m all too aware of the high cost of poor corporate culture.  In fact, my income depends on finding top sales performers who are looking for a better cultural fit.  From this experience, I have developed an almost paranoid obsession with creating and maintaining a healthy culture here at Sales Talent.  The culmination of this are the 9 key ingredients that drive Sales Talent’s culture.

Candor – Every new employee, regardless of role (including interns) starts day one with a chat with me.  In that chat I outline: what Sales Talent stands for, what our culture is like, our deliverable to our clients and candidates, what I expect from them and what they should expect from me.  Next I ask them to read an excerpt from the book Winning, written by the legendary former CEO of GE, Jack Welch.  The topic is Candor in the workplace; a quick synopsis can be found here.  That article is the launching pad into a discussion about what our new employee’s working relationship with me is going to be like.  Open channels and no BS.  To be clear, this isn’t your standard “Open Door” policy.  I expect the truth and I’ll give them the truth.  At the end of Day One, it’s my hope that I’ve instilled in them that working at Sales Talent is going to be different.

High Standards – I’ve learned the hard way that nothing can tear down our culture faster than allowing C Players and malcontents to stay.  Their poor attitudes and poor performance are daily reminders to our A Players that Sales Talent accepts mediocrity.  C Players should be allowed to maintain their dignity but I can’t allow them to keep their jobs.  With a B Player, we make it a team project to provide them with adequate training and opportunity to grow, even when we doubt that they can make the jump (see my thought on PIPs below).  If they possess the right attitude and are showing clear and measurable progress; they earn more time (and receive more support) to attain A Player performance levels.  Striking the right balance between giving  B Players a legitimate shot and maintaining the high level of performance required to compete is a key component in creating a winning culture.  

Performance Improvement Plans – No matter how well we choose and train our staff, we still face mis-hires and under-performers.  In past, I saw this as a painful process that I’d rather avoid.  Today I follow a process that uses PIPs as the “next step” when initial course corrections fail.  Used properly, PIPs serve two functions.  First, it gives the employee in question a genuine opportunity to turn their career around.  Each PIP has a clearly written set of metric-based goals that are obtainable and ramp up to lead the employee to A Player performance if followed.  Everyone on our team knows what the minimum standards are and at what point a PIP will be put into place if they aren’t being met.  This is based solely on performance and not on how much the team (or me) likes or dislikes an employee.  If there is friction with a given employee, PIPs are not the right vehicle for addressing the issues.  The second function a PIP serves is to show everyone else on our team that they will always be treated fairly and with respect.  Given that many companies only treat their top performers well, I believe this is a critical part of maintaining a high performing team.

Your Culture Must Fit Your Business Environment – Recruiting and the clients we serve have become more and more complicated.  We have adapted to this complexity by working more collaboratively, both internally and externally.  This requires that each recruiter must be willing to: openly share best practices and offer solutions to help another recruiter achieve success (even and especially when they aren’t getting paid on a deal).  Bringing this back to culture, I personally believe that having sales contests that pit one of our recruiters against another would crush any possibility of achieving a collaborative work environment.  Instead, we promote team competitions and individual competitions where a recruiter is pitted against their goals but not one another.  Just to be clear on this, we don’t have a #1 recruiter award.

Hire for Fit.  As the demands of recruiting shift; we must make corresponding shifts in who we hire.  Unlike 10 years ago, our best recruiters are coachable and team players but not “yes men (or women)”.  The “right fit” is someone who can question what isn’t working and push for change while maintaining healthy and effective relationships with their peers and clients.   When we find and hire someone with these qualities leading them becomes a matter of teaching them the business and getting out of their way.  It just works.

Transparency – I personally believe that being transparent with my agenda and the company goals is the easiest way to removing drama from the workplace.  No games, no politics.  Everything is above board and rewards are based on merit.  This is a twist on what the best selling author of The Four Agreements Don Miguel Ruiz’s calls The First Agreement, which is to be “impeccable with your word.”  If you are also open to feedback, your staff will point out the inconsistencies and flaws in your approach and plans (Mine certainly do with me).  I have found that being transparent forces me to get clear and be intentional with my direction and what I want from my team.  This example creates an environment where your staff has permission to share their goals, their concerns and their challenges.

If this doesn’t help convince you that transparency is positively correlated with great culture, the advent of soon will.  The last act of a poorly treated employee is to write a farewell treatise on everything that’s wrong with your culture and post it Glassdoor.  You will have to trust me when I tell you that the best and brightest won’t work for your company if there is a pattern of poor reviews on Glassdoor.  I go into detail about Glassdoor in these previous blog posts – Glassdoor and The End of Hiring as We Know It (Part 1) and 5 Tips to Turn Up Your Glassdoor Ratings (Part 2).  

Solicit & Apply Feedback – The more I mature as a business leader the more I humbly realize that I have a LOT to learn.  This realization prevents the mistaken belief that I know more about recruiting and what it takes to succeed than the rest of our the team.  How could I possibly know more than the collective intelligence of my team? Well, answers are only obvious if you are asking the question.  The breaking point for me was delivered by a survey response from one of my recruiters.  “Why do you ask my opinion if you’re just going to do what you wanted to anyway?” Why indeed?

As I/we have embraced working collaboratively and soliciting feedback I/we found several unintended benefits.  Sales Talent now enjoys:  a more cohesive strategic plan, simpler and more effective procedures and much, much higher team buy-in.  I have found that the earlier in the process I involve the team, the better.  The result is that it is now a Sales Talent best practice to include team members in decisions that will affect them.

Trust – Fear, coercement, intimidation and micromanaging are all 20th century methods for achieving results and they are all the enemy of great culture.  Over time, employees of leaders that employ one of these methods tire of their approach and either mutiny, leave or completely stop taking chances.  Despite how outdated these approaches are, I repeatedly run into leaders and even entire companies that operate this way.  Besides their ineffectiveness, there’s an additional reason why I personally reject these approaches.  I find the whole process of looking over my team’s shoulders to be draining and counter to how why I started Sales Talent.  Frankly, if I can’t trust my team, I don’t to want lead it.

To be clear and to quote former President Ford, “trust is earned, not given.” This trust is earned when I hire someone.  I also believe that they decided to join Sales Talent in large part because they trust me.  I won’t hire them if I don’t trust that: they have the skillset to do a great job, they’re more motivated to excel than I am to see them excel and they’ll come find me if they need help.   We vet these ingredients diligently throughout the interview process.  If our team has chosen wisely, my role as their leader becomes very clear.  It’s my job to inspire, coach, help remove obstacles and develop their inner talents.  Notice that “motivate” isn’t on my list.  To put it another way, I hire people who I believe will excel because they have all of the necessary qualities.  Until they prove me wrong, I’m going to trust them.  This approach might take me a bit longer to uncover that they’re betraying my trust.  Whatever time I lose, I gain back many fold by not having to look over my shoulder and constantly have to replace a revolving door of unsatisfied and over-monitored employees.

Self-Policing. As Sales Talent’s culture crystalized and started functioning at a high level I was treated to a very pleasant surprise.  Our A Players started enforcing the company standards.  They would “call out” subpar performers and ensure that company policies and procedures were being followed.  Often, they will fix the problem before it even comes to my attention.

Even if you aren’t the leader of the company you work at, these principals can be applied to the team you lead or work within.  Be intentional, be consistent and put your philosophy into writing.  To share a lesson I learned from entrepreneurial coach, Dave Crenshaw, “If it’s not documented, it’s not a policy.”