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Company leaders often face tremendous pressure—to successfully develop groundbreaking products and take them to market—while also meeting high expectations from investors, customers, and stakeholders. One of the biggest challenges small business leaders must deal with in this high-pressure environment is delivering on those expectations while attempting to build and maintain a healthy company culture.
Is it possible to strike a balance between developing groundbreaking products; dealing with investor, stakeholder, and client demands; and creating a healthy company culture? What does a healthy culture look like? And what are some practical ways for leaders to ensure the physical and mental health and well-being of their workforce while maintaining a lightning speed of innovation and perhaps growing headcount exponentially at the same time?
We sat down with Dorota Shortell, CEO of Simplexity Product Development, and Sean McClain, Founder and CEO of Absci, to explore answers to these questions and more on a recent episode of The C-Suite Chronicles podcast (Listen on Apple or Spotify). Spoiler alert: Building and maintaining a healthy company culture is more than defining your organization’s core mission and values and making sure employees commit them to memory. While that’s important, that alone won’t sustain your culture for the long haul. Read on to find out how Dorota and Sean have built healthy cultures in their organizations despite tremendous internal and external pressures, and to discover steps you can take to cultivate a positive, inclusive culture in your own company.
Cultivating a Healthy Workplace Culture
Company culture “can be defined as the ways people in the organization behave and the attitudes and beliefs [and values] that inform those behaviors (i.e., “the way we do things around here”) — including formal, stated norms as well as implicit ways people work and interact,” according to Denise Lee Yohn, brand and culture thought leader and expert in a recent Harvard Business Review article. Culture also reflects how you and your employees treat customers and investors and influences the type of talent you attract and retain, while improving productivity and employee engagement, inspiring your teams, and helping your company to thrive.
Dorota and Sean both took a top-down approach to developing company culture in their organizations, recognizing that leadership is responsible for setting the tone and modeling expected behaviors and values that employees are expected to emulate. In addition, they agreed that adopting a “people-first” perspective is vital when it comes to establishing and maintaining a healthy workplace culture.
“The culture part is key to making our clients successful because I have to have engineers and team members that are well-rested to come up with creative solutions,” Dorota said. “We can’t overwork people. At the same time, we also have to be very reactive to really tight schedule pressures because product development is still invention on some level.”
Simultaneously, Sean emphasized the importance of “cutting what doesn’t matter” and maintaining a laser focus on key areas deemed important by leadership, stakeholders, customers, and employees to achieve critical milestones. “In terms of the culture, it’s getting people willing to accept change,” he noted. “We call it ‘believing in the impossible’—taking what seems really difficult and knowing that we’re going to figure it out, but knowing that there’s going to be a lot of change and we don’t want to spread ourselves thin. Instead of trying to do it all, we’re going to focus on the two or three most important items that are going to create the most value in the next 12 to 18 months.”
Here’s How to Do It
Building and maintaining a healthy company culture requires leaders to: be proactive, adaptable, and flexible; be responsive and nimble as situations change; possess a growth mindset; and tap into intuitive wisdom. Here are five action steps to consider when it comes to creating a healthy culture under pressure:
1. Prioritize communication: Open, transparent communication can help build strong foundations for a health company culture. Leaders should encourage employees to express themselves openly and honestly, which can help foster a culture of inclusivity and belonging, where everyone feels seen and heard while alleviating stress and anxiety. Regular team check-ins, virtual town halls, and company-wide updates can ensure everyone stays on the same page and is working toward the same goals.
Keep in mind, communication should flow both ways: bottom-up as well as top-down. “You have to be constantly communicating with not only your team, but the whole company. ‘Hey, here’s what we’ve done extremely well this week, this month. Here are things we need to improve on. Here are things that we’re be behind on. Here’s how we’re tracking to our goals,’” Sean said. “Additionally, I think employee surveys are really great… and then sharing the results with staff. It creates this culture of transparency and showing everyone that you as a CEO, as well as your leadership team, are willing to learn and grow. These practices do so much to make sure you’re all rowing in the same direction.”
2. Promote work-life balance when possible: Being under near-constant pressure can cause employees to feel like they have to work round-the-clock to meet high standards and tight deadlines, especially in tech. And leaders may more than occasionally have to roll up their sleeves and get into the trenches with their employees to get the work done. “Recently we had a pretty intense project and our client had a really key deadline they absolutely had to meet. I was in there with the team on weekends,” Dorota said. “We were behind schedule, and we pushed really hard. Once the product shipped, I said to my employees: ‘Okay, take a breather. Take some time off. Celebrate your successes.’ It was important to me that they recharged and saw their families.”
Encouraging employees to take time off, as well as offering flexible schedules and access to mental health resources like an EAP program can help maintain a healthy culture and workforce.
3. Maintain a balanced approach: Focusing too much on one group of stakeholders can be detrimental to the others, and to your culture as a whole. Dorota explained it this way: “When you think about the challenges of developing products, you need to ask, who are the different stakeholders? You’ve got your employees—without them you don’t have a company. You’ve got the customers—without them, you don’t have anyone buying your product. Then you’ve got your shareholders/investors— without them, you don’t have money to run the company. All three want to release good products to the market, but employees don’t want to be overworked. Shareholders/investors want the fastest return on investment, and customers want the cheapest, best-quality product possible.”
“As a leader of a company, if you focus too much on the investors, you’re going to burn out and make your customers mad. If you focus only on your customers, then you’re not paying attention to your employees. At the same time, if you only focus on your employees, then you’re not going to work fast enough to meet the needs of the customers and investors. As a CEO, your job is this delicate balancing act of making sure everyone is happy(ish) and taken care of.”
4. Don’t lose sight of your “why:” Most startups are mission-driven organizations run by leaders who are passionate about accomplishing a critical goal, like producing something that makes people’s lives easier or that makes the world a better place. Making that mission the driving force behind everything the company does helps shape the culture and motivates employees to do their best work.
Sean implements this mission-focused approach at Absci. “Your company’s either going to survive or it’s not. You have to have that ‘evolve or die’ mentality,” he said. “You have to bring it back to the mission and the vision, the ‘Why are we doing this?’ By the company being successful, you’re making a difference in the world. That’s important, especially when you’re asking your team to work extra hard and go above and beyond.”
5. Lead by example: Leaders should model the behavior they want to see throughout the organization. This includes taking care of their own mental and physical health, prioritizing work-life balance, and demonstrating a commitment to transparent communication and collaboration. When leaders model these behaviors, they set the tone for a health company culture that has the resilience to withstand even the most challenging situations.
“As the CEO and leadership team, we’ve defined what it means to be a Simplexity employee and the behaviors that ensure everyone’s treating each other with respect while meeting our clients’ needs,” Dorota said. “Over the past year, we’ve focused on defining what those behaviors are as an organization. We’ve always had our core values, but now we break down a different behavior every week. For example, we want to be a data-driven company, so one such behavior is ‘use data to make decisions.’ I also write insights about what I think these behaviors mean and share them throughout the organization. Talking about how we should treat one another and how we can help each other and our clients is integral to solidifying the culture.”
Culture isn’t only created—it’s crafted. It takes hard work and dedication to strike that all-important balance between keeping employees, investors/stakeholders, and customers happy, especially under constant fire. It isn’t easy to build and maintain a healthy workplace culture, but challenging yourself to be transparent, authentic, and resilient while modeling the behaviors you desire to be reflected throughout the organization is a good place to start.
Ultimately, a healthy company culture leads to happier, more engaged employees who want to remain with your organization for the long term, along with higher productivity, greater inclusivity, improved profitability, and faster speed of innovation and time to market. That’s something all C-Suite leaders should strive for.
And if you’re looking for expert guidance on how to build a thriving company culture that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion in your organization, check out our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Center of Excellence. We can help you build DEI strategies, scale your hiring pipeline by tapping into diverse talent pools, and boost retention by creating a culture rooted in values and principles that reflect a diverse employee population.