Making Company Culture the DNA of Your Organization – A Founder’s Insight on Practical, Proven Strategies

I’ve always believed the way a company empowers people to make decisions that lead to success is to make company culture the number one priority. That’s easier said than done, of course.

As a founder and CEO, especially when your company is experiencing rapid growth, you’re constantly refining your strategy for bringing culture to every level. You need each person, from the C-suite executives to hourly employees out in the field, to be aligned to the same mission.

I’ve found the following truths to be invaluable in guiding my leadership when it comes to company culture.

Culture is a daily practice

Culture isn’t a one and done deal. It’s there every day and never goes away. An example from my prior life was something we called a daily lineup, where everyone, across the nation, got together twice a day. Every day, 356 days a year, we were talking about vision, mission, values, team member commitment, and something we called the 15 basics.

We had weekly marketing materials, and we would go through 26 aspects of culture every six months. Every week would be a different one, but everyone across the country was receiving the same messaging. We scaled engagement for a strong culture, at a large company spanning different states and numerous branches.

“Together we have the power to create more value than we ever could separately.”

Culture is recognizable and recognized

Culture should be such an integral part of your organization that everyone can speak on it and everyone can recognize it when they see it happening. Another example from my past is the tradition of recognition. At executive leadership meetings, it was part of every meeting kickoff. No matter what type of meeting, there would be one person who would have responsibility to talk about the culture of the week. They would talk about what it was and what it meant to them. Then, they would call out and recognize different people in the company who were living the culture.

On the other hand, when people are not living the culture, when they’re deviating strongly from the values you put out there – there have to be consequences. Up to and including no longer being a part of the organization. Without that consistency, it’s impossible to have a strong culture that can truly be seen at every level of a company.

Culture starts at the top down

It’s crucial that the CEO and leadership team are living those values. If they aren’t, it’s null and void. You can’t have a strong company culture if the people at the top are not leading by example. At our headquarters, it was a part of the design in the environment. So everywhere you went you would see the mission, vision and values we were living by.

When you’re hiring, it’s important to hire people who can live the culture, speak to the culture, and truly understand it. Not just in the obvious roles, but every person in leadership should be driven by that sense of mission and purpose around culture.

Q&A With Richard on Talent and Hiring for Culture

What are your guiding principles when it comes to human capital?

When I look at human capital, I look for people who have something special. What I’ve seen is, at the end of the day, it’s not about the goods that you buy. It’s about the people who take those goods and make them into something.

I’ve always said the smartest people hire smarter people than themselves.

And they’re not intimidated by that. That is what makes a great leader; someone who is not afraid to have the best around them.

What I would always tell somebody is: never be satisfied with mediocrity of people, you want the best individuals out there, the exceptional individuals. That’s just been my mantra.

What strategy can you use as a founder to bring in the best of the best?

I’ll tell you what I always did do, and I think everybody thought I was crazy: from certain levels up in the organization, not just my direct reports, but anybody coming in an executive level leadership role, I interviewed them personally.

I just felt that I had the best handle of the DNA of the company. In hiring, there were people that would be passed on to me to be selected as just a rubber stamp.

I would never just rubber stamp people. I would spend the time – whether it’s 10 minutes or a half hour or 45 – really figuring out what drives them.

In those interviews, how do you identify those exceptional people? The ones with a fire in their belly?

I’ll give you an example. When somebody would say to me, “I really want to work for you and finish up my career at your company.” That’s not a good enough reason for me. It doesn’t speak to mission, and culture is all about mission, and alignment.

I want you to be with us because you really believe in what we do and really want to take the journey. That’s the key. That’s what you want to look for, when you’re putting people in place around you to guide the day-to-day decision-making at your company.

Inspiration on Culture: Fixing Broken Culture at Lego

From the brink of bankruptcy to being named the world’s most powerful brand, Legos’ turnaround under the leadership of Jørgen Vig Knudstorp is the stuff of legend.

In 2003, Lego was failing. Frightened leadership had been trying to compete with the slew of electronic toys in the 90’s and badly overextended the brand. Lego had action figures, theme parks, even a fashion line that no one seemed to want – and the company was in debt to the tune of $800 million.

Enter Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a former McKinsey consultant, who came in with a plan and ambition – to turn the brand into “the Apple of toys”. He sold off the theme parks, cut 1000 jobs, and went back to the basics.

Knudstorp instructed his research team to start asking for honest feedback from their target audience – an audience indeed known for their honesty and sometimes bluntness – children. Knudstorp knew that the only way to create a thriving culture is to remove bureaucracy and fear, aligning employees around clear-cut strategy while at the same time giving them freedom to fail and course-correct as a team. He has famously said, “The blame is not for failure. It is failing to help or ask for help.”

His approach to culture emphasizes communication, alignment and agility. He met monthly with a group of senior vice presidents, instead of managing via committee. “It’s cumbersome to bring 25 people together in a room or at a video conference, but if you really manage the material and the process really well, you achieve huge speed advantages.”

That’s the power of understanding culture, and an example of the success you have when you focus on the things that matter.