5 Steps to an Award-Winning Culture

February 1, 2016


Imagine picking up a paintbrush, choosing your colors, and designing your perfect work environment from scratch. You could add a giant palm tree here, a magical vending machine there, a splotch of orange for tenacity, and a pink cloud for compassion.

But this isn’t a paint-by-numbers endeavor — you have the creative freedom to design your company culture however you see fit. Every day, you make choices that change the culture around you, so you need to think carefully about how that environment should look and feel.

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I know this from experience. My company was recently named by SmartCEO as one of the winners of the 2015 Corporate Culture Awards. We were recognized for building a positive, productive, and performance-driven culture centered squarely on our people. Here is my best advice for how to become a more creative, more responsible cultural craftsman:

1. Know your non-negotiable values, and never stray from them.

A great way to create a winning company culture is to live and breathe your values and expect your team to do the same. Every member of the team should feel a sense of ownership over the company. So decide as a team what values are vital. Are honesty and transparency your things? What about balance or perseverance?

Whatever they are, establish them, and lay a foundation for your company. And once you determine what those values are, hold your decisions — from hiring and staff development to taking on new clients to starting new partnerships — against those values to ensure you’re staying true to who you are as a company.

Perhaps one of my biggest non-negotiable values is the idea of organizational movement. Coming from a dance background, a person’s energy matters to me. I value someone who is decisive and will act on an idea. But I believe stillness is just as crucial to dance as movement. Knowing when to relax, look around, and appreciate life is an admirable trait.



2. Foster individual empowerment.

Accept that your employees have their own unique priorities — personal career goals, plans for higher education, family matters, desires to pursue other passions, etc. — that might not always mesh with where your company is or where it’s headed. But by respecting everyone on your team and learning about these individual needs and values, you can open up the dialogue and strengthen the relationship between that employee and your company.

And just as employees are focused on company goals, they’ll also bring their own ambitions to work with them. As the cultural craftsman, you should learn those goals and care enough to include them in your company vision. As a result, you’ll create an environment where everybody feels included, healthy, and happy, which can boost productivity across your entire organization.

3. Leave room for play.

Play is a vital part of work. Simply put, innovation is highly unlikely and collaboration is completely stymied without a little fun.

So make room for play in your workplace. Craft your environment with play in mind, build time into your schedule to mess around, and let people know that this is a safe space to goof off. Your employees will immediately loosen up and enjoy themselves, and your company culture will start to look a lot more colorful.

4. Learn to love feedback.

Nobody wants to hear that he sucks. But if, say, 80 percent of your employees are severely irritated by a particular facet of your company, you need to know about it. Open yourself up to hearing their feedback.

Certainly, you need to create a kick-butt employee review process and develop an ongoing strategy for constantly sharing thoughts or ideas. But that process should evaluate your performance as well — and you need to learn to love that feedback!

A culture of sharing, honesty, and mutual respect is important. Your employees need to feel like their voices are heard and their feedback is not only valuable, but also critical. This helps workers proactively share their insights and take ownership in the workplace.



5. Know when to let go.

As unfortunate as it seems, firing people is an important part of any good company culture. And knowing when to let someone go is an integral part of your role as a cultural craftsman. When you picture your perfect workplace, negativity and selfishness aren’t part of it. So don’t include them.

Believe it or not, letting someone go led to one of the better cultural moments I’ve had at my company. After much deep conversation, we realized that person didn’t want to be a part of our vision anymore, and we both agreed it was the right thing to do. The transition process was healthy and friendly, and the company culture was stronger than ever as a result. However, this was possible only because we first crafted a culture that empowered people and set the tone for open, honest communication.

Your company culture is an original composition. As the craftsman, you should consider it an expression of your truest creativity — a work of art, even. But it’s not art for art’s sake. It’s a marriage between freedom of expression and form, function, and technique.

If one element is off, the whole picture suffers. Continue designing your company culture through sound decisions and collaboration, and your whole company will work to ensure the integrity of your values stays intact. In return, you’ll be rewarded by growth and ongoing success.

So get painting!


about the author

CEO, SUM Innovation Freelancer-turned-accountant Mathew Heggem is the CEO of SUM Innovation, a New York City-based company that assesses, designs, implements, and manages accounting solutions for fast-growth startups, international businesses, established and growing businesses, and nonprofits across the U.S. Mathew is also the founder of the #SUMTech Summit and the #AccTech Cooperative meetup in New York City.