Birthday Cake, Beer and Bikes: Why Company Culture Matters

by Andrew Stanten

What do birthday cake, beer and bike riding have to do with the bottom line? Everything.

We focus in this column most of the time on marketing strategy and tactics. But in the spirit of the season, this month’s column focuses on the softer – but no less important – side of Altitude Marketing.

I have seen firsthand how having a positive, highly embraced corporate culture fuels the bottom line. And if you run one of the 80 percent of companies that don’t care about corporate culture, give yourself a gift this holiday season and read on.

So what is company culture and why should you care?

Culture helps shape the soul of a company – its beliefs, actions, attitudes, workflow, reputation and more. A strong company culture increases employee loyalty, fosters team work, increases productivity and reduces negative behavior. It can help support creativity and fosters loyalty. It helps a company attract and retain the right employees, which leads to greater commitment, higher employee satisfaction and better customer relations.

When you have engaged, satisfied employees committed to the company, they want to do right by your customers. And the bottom line starts to fall into place.

So now you’re on board and thinking to yourself, “Okay, I’ll create a corporate culture.” Not so fast!

Culture is not a top-down edict – but leadership does set the tone. Culture is not codified in the HR manual, but permeates how team members interact, treat each other, manage work, achieve success and learn from failure. It’s not just about perks, though they can help define it. It’s not the same as your mission – but the two must fit together.

So what, exactly, is corporate culture and how do you know it when you see it?

Living the Brand

I had the pleasure of starting my career at Rodale, Inc. – a publisher of healthy lifestyle content. Experiencing a positive, empowering corporate culture helped set the stage for how we’ve built and grown Altitude – by hiring great talent and keeping them engaged with a great company culture.

Every lunchtime at Rodale, packs of runners, Lycra-clad cyclists and mudded-up mountain bikers would take off and play for an hour or two. It was never a question about whether the work would get done. It always did.

Because employees loved where they worked and wanted the company to succeed. Healthy food choices were abundant in the cafeteria. Space was provided for massage therapists.

Why would Rodale go to these lengths? Because living a healthy, active lifestyle was core to the company’s values, mission and beliefs. In short, it was the culture of the company. Rodale was on a mission to help its customers live a healthy, active lifestyle.

Leadership at the time knew this started with the employees. Employees needed to feel it, live it and embrace it in order to put their best product forward. Rodale put out a great product – and enjoyed a tremendous bottom line – in large part because of it.

I know what you’re thinking. All that stuff will cost me money! It can, but culture isn’t defined by the money you spend on supporting it.

Shared Success

Here at Altitude, it is core to our culture that everyone – from the newest entry-level employee to the leadership team – has a voice because we know that great ideas can come from anyone and anywhere.

Everyone knows that once an idea leaves someone’s lips or arrives in someone else’s email box, it is no longer their idea. It becomes the team’s. It gets picked apart, questioned – and ultimately, improved upon. The end result is what matters. It is the ultimate team-based approach. There are no hurt feelings, bruised egos, “Hey that’s my idea” politicking, because it is ingrained in our corporate culture that we work as a team – not in isolation – and all that matters is that we produce the best work possible. Total cost: $0.

You Can’t Hide

We have no private offices, no walls, no cubbies in our main workspace. The open floor plan breeds collaboration and helps ensure we all know what’s going on in each others’ space so we can lend an impromptu hand. This is by design and core to who we are and why we are successful. Total cost: $0.

No Stewing

And with such a team-based approach, there is no room or time for inefficiencies brought on by interpersonal conflict. That’s why we have a “No Elephants in the Room” concept. If something is bugging someone, regardless of who you are in the company, it needs to be discussed, addressed and fixed. One-on-one. As quickly as possible.

Hiring for Fit

Nothing impacts a culture more than the people. That’s why any new applicant needs to take a personality profile test so we can understand how they will fit in. Someone with great interview skills and credentials, but who has a “me first” attitude would negatively impact the culture – and the bottom line. Total cost: $10/candidate.

Small Things, Big Impact

I personally walk around each month and hand people their paychecks – even though we all have direct deposit. I look each employee in their eyes and give them a most sincere “Thank you.” People seem to think that’s amazing and crazy. I see it as warranted and necessary.

We take time out to celebrate everyone’s birthday with cake, keep the beer fridge stocked and go for hikes as a group. Several of us are avid cyclists and we’ll roll off on our bikes after work for a quick 25 miles and brainstorming about projects, clients, sales, team – whatever.

We have an active Culture Team that is responsible for planning outings and events. The net result is we have a group of people who genuinely care about each other and are able to deliver exceptionally creative approaches to difficult marketing challenges for our clients. This, in turn, feeds the bottom line.

Conversely, you can have a corporate culture based on negatives. For example, many organizations today still manage employees with fear. This breeds distrust, lack of loyalty, animosity towards the employer and in many cases, really bad reputation and public relations. It doesn’t take a sociologist or finance whiz to see how that can all have a negative impact on the bottom line.

As you envision the future of your company, you owe it to yourself to ask the following:

  • How would I define our company’s culture?
  • How would my employees define it?
  • Is it positive or negative?
  • What can we do to make it stronger, better?