For the first time n what seems like an eon, so really three years, we were able to have a full company in-person Christmas Party. As my business partner and I looked out over the sea of people representing our employees and their significant others, it was awe-inspiring how many people put their future in our hands. This humbling and sobering moment was a great time to reflect on why they choose us and, more importantly, why they stay. As we discussed this further in our weekly management meeting, we gained incredible clarity. Overwhelmingly the sentiment was that they stay for the culture. We all know it is far more complicated than this, as we need to be competitive in wages and benefits; but overall, it still comes down to culture being the magical staying power.

To get everyone on the same footing moving forward, defining what culture means in our company is important. Culture, to us, is a set of values we completely embody and consider the DNA of the company. We hire, conduct reviews and fire based on our company-defined values. I believe values need to dictate every action within the company.

One final thought before I go into what we have done at Security Solutions NW (SSNW) is that no special culture wins the contest. Two companies can have very different cultures, be equally successful and have the same retention rate if they hire correctly and fire correctly. I believe this with all my heart, so as you look at what we have done, understanding the process is the most important lesson to glean. We tend to be a more social culture blurring the lines of personal versus work time by hosting after-hours events for employees and families. In contrast, I know a company that keeps a work-only culture and is very successful with a very high level of employee satisfaction.

Our journey of discovery:

My business partner and I were at an Electronic Security Association (ESA) event where Mark Murphy spoke on his book “Hiring for Attitude.” This talk impressed upon us the importance of a defined culture and what that means. The first point I would like to make is that every company has a culture. If you haven’t defined it and put discipline into enforcing it, then the likelihood is that your team has, and most of the time, this is scary.

You will notice I used the word discover. I am a firm believer you can't force culture but rather foster it. Think of trying to feed an obstinate 18-month-old, and if they don’t like what is offered, I dare you to try to force feed. We know it doesn’t work. As a management team, we examined the traits of our best-performing employees, specifically those most liked by their team and what we called the ‘bleed blue’ (our brand color) quality. We listed those employees on the whiteboard and detailed everything positive we could think about them. We cross-referenced this word picture with the other traits and similarities, then we boiled down the list, reduced, then reduced again until we discovered three values were left: positive attitude, willingness to learn and problem solving.

“Every company has a culture, If you haven’t defined it and put discipline into enforcing it, then the likelihood is that your team has, and most of the time, this is scary.”

The second significant point is this process of discovery is fun, frustrating, exhausting and ultimately rewarding. Do not expect to do this in one session. For SSNW, it took us months of two-hour weekly meetings.

Now with our values clearly defined, we set about refining every one of our critical processes that would lead to the cleanest, most positive culture. This meant we revised our hiring process. We trusted the book in its guidance that hiring for culture would equate to higher productivity and longevity. Now, with time on our side, I can say that trust was not misplaced. Next, we looked at the onboarding process, which involved heavily discussing the values of the company. Third, we revised our review process to meet with every employee three times a year and go over their hard skills along with their soft skills (values). This has been a fantastic way of holding all employees to the same standard and allowing those that would benefit from a different culture to seek one. Our discipline process was already aligned, so we followed it rigorously.

This leads to another point: during this process, you will have employees that don’t fit the culture. Please understand they are already unhappy or making those that do fit extremely unproductive. Move them along and allow them to find a culture that fits them better. Your company will be stronger, and they will have the potential to be happier.

Finally, investing in culture is one thing we never seem to have time for, but once the work is done and the benefits start becoming apparent, the only regret you will be left with is not starting earlier.