What Startups Can Learn from Great Place To Work® Companies

What Startups Can Learn from Great Place To Work® Companies

Five Tips for Launching a Great Company Culture

A startup founder might glance at the practices of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For and assume there's not much that applies to his or her startup. After all, these best companies often have tens of thousands of people, and big budgets allocated for culture and engagement. (Disclosure: I too was a little skeptical as I walked into the Great Place To Work® Conference for the first time.)

However, with three Great Place To Work® Conferences under my belt, I now know that there's a common theme across all of these great workplaces—one that transcends differences in headcounts and budget sizes: That the greatest companies are led by genuinely good people who treat the people in their organization like people

No matter how small or underfunded the startup, founders have all the resources they need to heed this lesson and set their companies on the path for greatness. Here are some places to start:

  1. Motivate people intrinsically.

    In her keynote at GPTW 2015, Donna Hyland of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta spoke of a staff member who went digging through piles of trash to find a wedding ring that a patient's mother had lost. The staff member was intrinsically motivated by a higher sense of purpose at Children's of Atlanta.

    Even if your company's mission isn't to save children's lives, there's still an underlying reason why your startup exists. Communicate it, live it, and motivate your people with it. Extrinsic motivators—like money—take a noticeable back seat to intrinsic motivators—like purpose—at great workplaces.

  2. Communicate with people like they're grown-up people (hint: they are).

    On stage at GPTW 2015, Sr. Fortune Editor Christopher Tkaczyk asked former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo about a recent story in which a Twitter staff person questioned via an internal forum whether the company was doing enough to prevent harassment in tweets. Costolo admitted on the forum that Twitter was doing a bad job at it, and pledged that they would be much more aggressive about preventing harassing tweets going forward.

    This brief, but important, exchange was made possible by Twitter's culture of open communication. As CEO, Costolo tried to cultivate a culture where open communication was encouraged by speaking personally to every new hire class at Twitter and encouraging them to challenge anyone in the organization in pursuit of the truth.

  3. People are taking cues from you on how to act.

    Clif Bar pays for its people to exercise 2.5 hours a week. But, even with that perk in place, it would be human nature for someone to be nervous about being viewed as the slacker who leaves the office in the middle of the day to go workout. For this reason, GPTW 2015 keynote speaker Kevin Cleary, Clif Bar's CEO, makes sure that Clif Bar people see him at the office in his sweaty gym clothes after a midday run, and he encourages his leadership team to be equally visible in their workout gear. Walk the walk.

  4. People want to feel part of a bigger whole when they first come on board.

    Anytime someone joins a new community, they feel the need for a sense of belonging. It's human nature rooted in survival that dates back to our hunter-gatherer days. That same emotional need exists when someone joins a company, so make sure to onboard accordingly.

    We loved hearing at GPTW 2015 that emails pieces of onboarding content to new hires on a regular basis throughout their first year. Those emails achieve 80 percent open rates!

  5. Give people information the way their brains physiologically want it (using stories!).

    Human brains are wired to love stories. It turns out that stories activate parts of our brain that remain dormant when we consume other types of information. The increased brain function associated with consuming stories keeps us engaged and helps us retain the information better.

    We were very engaged during the session at GPTW 2015 led by Plante Moran. Stories played a big part in their presentation, just as they do in the day-to-day at their organization.

    Use stories to communicate your startup's culture, purpose, core values and vision. Doing so will help your people feel much more closely connected to those important concepts. (Note: We help companies uncover and tell these stories — we encourage you to do it whether it's with our help or not.)

All of the examples above touch on uniquely human traits. As you shape your startup's culture, remind yourself that the people in your organization are people. As a fellow human, you might find that the right decision comes naturally to you.

Scott Thompson is a cofounder and partner at Stories Incorporated. As a result of working with growing, people-centric companies of all sizes, Scott has a unique perspective on preserving and scaling culture through storytelling. Scott has a Master of Business Administration and a Bachelor of Arts in History from Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.