6 Key Practices of Companies with Award-Winning Cultures

By Brian O’Donnell, CEO-in-Residence & Strategic Facilitator

When you think about your role as CEO in creating a culture where employees want to work and believe they can make an impact, it’s smart to look at companies that are rated “Best Places to Work” and learn what they are doing right. I recently did a bit of this myself by reviewing 1) several companies who have conducted detailed research 2) a number of surveys on employee satisfaction and 3) results from our own CEO Collectives members’ efforts to evaluate their company cultures.

Here are the key practices that stood out (and, spoiler, it’s not just about ping-pong tables and free beer on Friday afternoons):

You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.
— Walt Disney

1) Strong Investment in Employee Development – While many companies think they are doing a good job in terms of employee development, the best companies show us that there is more to be done to both help employees to take ownership in their self-development and to give them easier access to learning and experiential activities to further their growth. The best companies make sure that employees have the right skills to accomplish their current jobs, while learning new skills to prepare for future roles. They put their employees into situations where they can get real experience, like leading projects and participating in initiatives. Research shows that learning from actual experience has the greatest impact – and reward.

They may not remember what you said, or even what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.
— Carl W. Buehner.

2) Giving Extra Support in Challenging Times  Employees remember and appreciate how they are treated in challenging times, even more than during the good times. The leaders in company culture know the importance of showing a positive outlook for the business and a commitment to employees during downturns. In these times, it’s paramount to protect jobs and the longer-term investment in people (instead of layoffs) and improve benefits (instead of cutting them). Companies that show this level of support in the hard times, create deeper loyalty that drives a stronger, more engaged workforce, resulting in better long-term business performance. And remember, as the CEO, you must lead the charge in this area. It can’t be delegated.

3) Providing Flexibility and Opportunities for Work/Life Balance – Companies that score the highest in employee surveys not only provide ways for their employees to have a good work/life balance, but they really “walk the talk” in terms of modeling it. While that can be more challenging in certain types of businesses, I have even witnessed traditional manufacturing companies coming up with ways to provide greater work flexibility. Flex time, PTO, work from home programs, and half-day Fridays are all examples of ways in which employees can gain flexibility. When you find ways to create flexibility for employees, you’ll find that they reciprocate. To put this model in place, it requires that you to step back and think outside historical company norms and policies. As hard as it may be to give the inch without being worried it will be taken as a mile, just remember that all the top companies do it and get great results.

4) Maintaining a “Small Company” Culture – That wonderful small company culture is hard to hold onto as a company grows larger, but employees want to feel that they are part of a group where they are known and appreciated. There are many ways the most successful companies create this culture, including free lunches once a week, employee disaster funds, mentoring programs, even rotating people on planning committees and giving them a “seat at the table” and the ability to engage at a higher level. The challenge is to keep the organizational structure as flat as you can and effectively grouped. New employee lunches, performance or service recognition events are also ways to provide that personal touch. As CEO, it is most important that you find ways to be transparent and communicate directly to employees – they need (and want) to hear from you.

5) Making Time and Space for Fun – Okay, here’s the part about the ping pong table. Yes, the most successful companies also find ways to add some fun into the mix, whether through structured activities and events (parties, sports, hiking, groups), or just creating a normal culture of “this is what we do here” (for example, open kitchens, breakfasts and lunches, special celebrations and treats, “living rooms”, and places for people to interact and engage). Fun diversions can really make a difference and help people feel they are a part of something special. But note, that simply adding some “fun” areas doesn’t create a fun culture. Again, this is a top down thing. As CEO, it’s important you are are able to have fun at the office. Employees need to see that in you to believe it’s a true value of the company.

6) Being a Great CEO – And last, but not least, research by GlassDoor, the web employee rating portal, suggests that there is a strong correlation between how highly employees rate their CEO and “Best Place to Work” ratings. Serving as CEO is both complex and rewarding. Success is not guaranteed, but it is far more likely if you are clear on what must be done by YOU, first and foremost, and not by others, in order to lead the effort to help create an excellent culture that retains talented team members.

Contact Brian at bodonnell@raffonigroup.com