Whether you’re an advertising agency, a design firm, a digital marketing group, or any other company, finding out how to create a strong company culture is crucial to your success. Company culture can be the binding agent that holds your company together no matter what’s thrown at you. But when toxic, it can also be what tears you apart, feeds discord, and sends your best people out the door in alarming numbers. Building a meaningful, lasting, what we call transcendent culture isn’t easy. But you’d be amazed at the number of leaders who question how to create a strong company culture and then either give up or ignore the question because it’s too hard. It’s too expensive. Or it takes too much time.
If you think building a culture is expensive and time consuming, try running your company without one.
THE GREAT MISNOMER
The truth is, you have a culture whether you know it or not. It can be positive, inclusive, supportive, diverse, and nurturing. Or it can be negative, exclusive, self-centered, discriminatory, and discouraging. The answer to how to create a strong company culture starts with an honest assessment of what kind of culture you have. Odds are, it’s not super negative. If it was, most of your team would have bailed by now, especially in the work environment we’re living in. If you’re like most companies, you fall somewhere in the middle. The culture isn’t bad. It may even be good. But it’s not yet what it could be. Your potential lies in joining the vast minority of companies with best-in-class cultures that pay ongoing attention to building and curating the environment in which their team works 40 to 70 hours every week. Two thousand to 3,500 hours a year. More than 90,000 hours over the course of a career. You have a company culture. Your team is marinating in it every day. And whether you realize it or not, your culture is affecting everything that goes on in your company and everything that comes out of it. Every product. Every client call. Every result.
Now how important would you say your company culture is?
HOW TO CREATE A STRONG COMPANY CULTURE
In 2000 when we started this evolution of The LOOMIS Agency (we were once a brand music production and media company), we leaned hard into culture and paying attention to the effects it had on building our company. We weren’t prescient by any means. We were fortunate to have all come from agencies with challenging cultures and collectively, we had the want to create something better at LOOMIS.
When we first sat down and questioned how to create a strong company culture, our first inclination was to keep everything positive we’d experienced in other cultures while eliminating the toxic, negative elements. That turned out to be an outstanding starting point. But there was a lot more work to do.
Over the next 22 years, we learned that to answer the question, “how to create a strong company culture,” there are seven foundational elements that must be present for the culture to succeed. Those elements are safety, vulnerability, purpose, belonging, creativity, connection, and what we call North Star Leadership. We wrote about them in detail in our book about how to create a strong company culture called “The Voice of the Underdog: How Challengers Create Distinction By Thinking Culture First.” But we’ll elaborate a bit here as well.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
Every culture has to begin with safety. If your people feel unsafe in any way physically, mentally, emotionally, or even spiritually at work, their hearts and attention cannot be focused on doing a great job for your company and clients. Safety isn’t about coddling people and building safe spaces for snowflakes. It’s about creating a supportive, empathetic environment where people can be the best versions of who they are. Why would you pay them what you’re paying them to be anything else.
When you are sitting down to figure out how to create a strong company culture, know this: there is great value in admitting you don’t know everything. You don’t have to have every answer. And if you’ve hired well, you’ll never be the smartest person in the room. You can’t build this company by yourself. When you are honest enough with yourself and your team to lead but empower them to take control, drive the work, and receive the credit, amazing things happen. Your employees thrive and so does your company.
Mark Twain said, “the two most important days of your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” Purpose is powerful. Of all the elements a transcendent company culture comprises, purpose may be the most galvanizing. It’s also the one we overthink the most. If the goal is to build a lasting, engaging, inspiring company that people want to spend their careers being a part of, purpose is about discovering what lies at the heart of that for you? What do want to be known for? What lighthouse beacon of an idea would you be proud to grow your company around? When you invest the time and energy to figure out your purpose, you give your team something noble to align with. You give them the chance to make the changes to the world they most want to make.
We all want to belong. But it’s more than a want. It’s a primal need that’s as important professionally as it is personally. Some companies want to shy away from getting personal. If that’s your mindset, you’re doing yourself and your team a huge disservice. The only way your team will buy into and help cultivate your company culture is if it is personal. Those interactions, those relationships, those unexpected, delightful collisions we experience every day at work are how we all make sense of our belonging. Meaning at work doesn’t just come from tasks done well. It comes from relationships formed and the sense of belonging they give us.
How to create a strong company culture? Get creative. There’s a gross miscalculation that in any organization the people who should do all the creative thinking are those who are formally trained to do so – the writers, the art directors, the designers, digital artists, illustrators, and photographers. Yes, companies must have a division of labor and yes, your creative team should shoulder the lion’s share of the creative work. But to build a great culture it’s imperative you empower everyone in your company to think creatively. Great ideas can come from anywhere. But often, those not in the “creative department” need your permission to think that way. Not every idea is great. But more solutions are better than fewer solutions and it never hurts to have everyone focused on coming up with the big idea.
We live in a world of instant gratification. But that’s not how connection is built. Connection takes time. Intention. Vulnerability. Commitment. In a time when increasing numbers of people are changing jobs and young people come in the door wanting to make an immediate difference, connection is a lesson you have to pay attention to if you have any hope of building a great company culture. Genuine connection is about physically doing life–and business–with people you love and trust. In many companies, that’s easier said than done. But when you get it right, people stick. Imagine a place where we foster inclusion and diversity and where we show empathy, and genuine concern for the people we work with. A place where we’re transparent, open, and when necessary, apologetic. People don’t leave companies where they feel connected.
NORTH STAR LEADERSHIP
North Star Leadership is what happens when self-aware leaders have crystal clarity about who they are, where they want to take their companies, and how they intend to get there. The hard part is that only you can do what it takes to become a person worthy of leading your team, your group, your clients, and your organization. They don’t need a manager. They need a beacon of clarity. They need an inspired thinker. They need a champion who can build them up and lead them into battle with clear direction, conviction, and support. Every north star leader should be the first person asking how to create a strong company culture. To create what we call a transcendent company culture, your entire team has to take ownership of building and curating it. But it starts with you. It starts with a leadership vision and purpose big enough and clear enough to catalyze your entire team. You as a leader are not scalable. But your leadership is.
THE REAL TRUTH ABOUT COMPANY CULTURE
If you’re like most of us, you spend more time with the people you work with than with your own family. That is why knowing how to create a strong company culture is so vitally important. If you haven’t yet had the chance to read our book, we’ll give you a quick preview of our greatest revelation. As much as the focus of building an advertising agency, or media firm, or any great brand is the destination you’re trying to get to, the greatest meaning you’ll find in all of this is the journey you take with the people you care about and the relationships you share. When the day comes that you retire, it won’t be a key strategy, a particular brief, or even a client meeting you remember. It’ll be the people you mentored. The friendships you made. The moments you were all there for each other in good times and bad. That’s what a transcendent culture looks like.