Where does a great culture come from?

Does great company culture come from ping pong tables, beer fridges, and free lunches? Or is there something deeper?

One summer, when I was a teenager, I got a job doing maintenance work. The work itself wasn't that interesting: cleaning machinery, moving palettes, sweeping floors. But what I remember most was my boss: he was a university student, himself doing his summer job. But he created a team culture that most executives can only dream of: he was able to inspire a lazy teenager (me) to do great work, enjoy it, and come back year after year.

My friend Andy Parkinson defines a positive culture this way:

A good culture is one that attracts and keeps the kind of people that helps your company become successful.

I'd add one more thing to Andy's list that he hints at: a good culture creates great work. Here are the things that my maintenance boss did that created a great culture for his team:

1. Identify where you're headed

The first day on the job, my boss looked at me and said: "I'm brand new to this job too. Our goal this summer is to do such quality work, that we get invited back next summer. We're going to leave this place better than when we found it."

That vision told me he was serious about our work: we weren't just going to go through the motions - we were actually going to accomplish something.

2. Work alongside your team

My boss was definitely my superior, but he spent most of the day working alongside me. He wouldn't meet me in the morning, give me my marching orders, and then shut himself in his office to play solitaire all day. He got his hands dirty. He worked hard. I realized that if I was going to work with him, I'd need to keep up.

3. Communicate strong values

In everything we did, my boss communicated the values he had for our team. He didn't roll these out on a poster, and paste it in the coffee room. Instead, he shared them with us as we worked:

"We don't leave things half-done."

"Turn on some loud music; we can have fun while we're sweeping these floors."

"Scrub that until it shines. Don't just clean it to the standard someone else left it at."

We heard these things so often, that it wasn't long before we knew these values intuitively. When he did give us a task to do by ourselves, we knew what standard we should hold ourselves to.

Everything rises and falls with leadership

You'll notice the key ingredient in our culture was my boss: he set the tone. To have a strong culture you need strong leadership. A good leader will identify a vision, communicate core values, and then live those things out on a daily basis. It's the leader that inspires the culture. This is true for many companies known for strong cultures: Apple (Steve Jobs), 37signals (Jason Fried and DHH), Zappos (Tony Hsieh), and Ryan Carson (Treehouse).

If your team has chosen to follow you, they'll reflect what they see. Want a strong, positive culture? Be a strong, positive leader.

Justin Jackson

This post is a part of Startup Edition's weekly series. This week's question was about company culture.

Published on October 21st, 2013
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