Entrepreneurs Need to Focus on Culture, Not Perks

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I often see people mistaking perks for culture. They are lured to join a company with Ping-Pong tables and a fully stocked beer refrigerator, only to find that many people in the company are disengaged and frustrated. Games and a kegerator do not necessarily make for a strong culture. Instead, I like to define culture in terms of a high-performance culture, one that exhibits qualities like communication, collaboration, mission and value alignment, innovation and accountability.

I’m not saying that perks are bad. In fact, perks can enhance culture, but they shouldn’t serve as a substitute for culture.

Instead of focusing on offering the latest perks, business leaders and entrepreneurs should prioritize cultural elements to create the framework for employee engagement.

Here are a few lessons about crafting a high-performance culture that I’ve learned along the way:

Listen to your employees

In each of the three companies that I’ve founded, I had a vision for building a solution and a company.

Then I recruited great people and formed teams to help pursue that vision. In every single case, the product and solution expanded beyond my initial vision, and it became better, more beautiful and functional than I had previously imagined. At the core of this development process was soliciting and listening to employee feedback. Without that ongoing process, the product would have never had advanced beyond my original vision.

Foster personal and professional development

As many readers might know, this year marks a generational shift in which millennials have become the largest cohort within the workplace. One of the things that stands out most about the motivation for this group is the desire to continuously learn and develop in their career.

In fact, according to a PWC study, the opportunity for personal development was the number-one reason millennials chose their current position, and training and development was regarded as the most valued benefit amongst employees.

I’ve seen some great examples of personal and professional development programs that do not need to cost a dime. One of my favorite examples is reverse mentoring, where junior employees mentor someone in a more senior role about their expertise. My marketing manager is decades younger in her career than me, yet she is much more fluent in the world of social media and she coaches me on navigating this critical component of our business. These programs not only provide value to the mentee, but mentors also find a great deal of satisfaction from being in a teaching role.

Another fun example is “TED Tuesdays.” In this program, companies put aside time to feature TED Talks around a certain theme to learn and reaffirm a particular focus in their organization.

Create traditions grounded in values

When I first started CultureIQ, a business providing company culture-management software, a year and a half ago, there were only three of us sharing a small office space. We were working incredibly hard and wearing many hats to launch a company and create something from the ground up.

One Friday as we were taking off for the weekend, I wanted to acknowledge how committed we’d been all week, rather than just saying “see you soon.” Spontaneously, I shook hands with my two colleagues. It felt like an appropriate way to punctuate everything we had accomplished that week and also a sign of mutual respect for a job well done.

Since then, this has become a weekly tradition for all of our employees, even as the company has grown. It’s our way of acknowledging the respect that we have for each other and the work we have done. It is a way to apply our core value of “celebrating and enjoying the journey.” And it is also a great example of how culture traditions can be powerful, without costing a dime.

Be creative, and be a community

I recently visited a customer in Colorado and participated in their all-hands meeting. At the introduction of the meeting, the CEO invited up the monthly winner of the Hot Potato Award. The Hot Potato Award, I learned, is a peer-recognition program in which last month’s winner awards a plastic potato head to a colleague that he or she feels has gone above and beyond the call of duty.

When this award was announced, everyone stood, cheered, clapped and celebrated. It didn’t matter that the award was a plastic toy. What mattered was that the award was rooted in traditions, in employees and in shared experiences. This reminded me that sometimes a simple pat on the back is more valuable than anything of monetary value.

– Greg Besner, Founder and CEO of CultureIQ

This article originally appeared in Entrepreneur.

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