Staffing Handbook: How Leaders Can Create Positive Company Culture and Attract Top Talent
For anyone searching for a job, it’s recommended that they ask questions during the interview. After all, it’s not an interrogation, but more of a two-way conversation. Candidates need to learn what’s in it for them if they were to be hired.
For novice interviewees, like new college graduates, one of the boilerplate questions a lot of people suggest is: “What is the company culture like?”
The reason this question is asked so often is because it’s a good way to gauge how the company views its staff. What is the management like? What are the expectations of you? What are the expectations of your managers? How do they handle tough times? What’s the growth outlook?
In a perfect world, a positive company culture means your company is hiring because it’s expanding, not because people are leaving or quitting.
So, how do you establish a good company culture? We mean a real company culture, not a bunch of empty promises thrown at a nervous 22-year-old, or simply pointing at a particularly well-stocked snack machine in the break room. A ping-pong table is awesome, but it’s not a company culture.
And, once you’ve secured a talented prospect, how do you make sure they stay? To use a sports analogy, that top prospect you sold a story about landing a championship in X amount of years thanks to a system built around them only works when you follow through. Otherwise, your GM is going to be handed a trade request.
We spoke to a few gurus of company culture and leadership know-how — Michelle Altobelli, MAS+, president and branding consultant for Altobelli Advantage Inc., Rogers, Minnesota; Mike Philie, principal at Philie Group, West Friendship, Maryland; and Leo Friedman, founder and CEO of iPromo, Canal Winchester, Ohio — about the biggest lessons they’ve learned as leaders, how new leaders can avoid costly mistakes, how to attract (and retain) top talent, and how to create a company culture that fosters growth and happiness among employees.
Determine What’s Important to You
Friedman says culture is the soul of his company. And it’s not just about making things work for employees and management. Company culture extends to the customers, too. If you have a good system in place, it will be evident to your customers. Accountability, strong communication, trustworthiness, honesty — these are things that affect how you conduct your business.
For Friedman and iPromo, accountability is where things start and end. He looks at it two ways: accountability to yourselves within the organization, and accountability to your customers.
“That’s been the biggest lesson: Make sure you hold people accountable,” he continues. “And I do think in a high-accountability culture, in a high-performance culture, people that are not accountable are quickly driven out. They don’t survive, which drives more of the same culture of success and growth. That’s been huge.”
It’s survival of the fittest. A clearly defined system with goals and expectations will eventually reveal the people who don’t adhere to those core values.
Good systems and culture don’t just weed out people who aren’t paddling the boat in the same direction. When they’re designed well, they weed out bad ideas, or plans that have been in place, but are no longer working.
That’s one quality Friedman says is too rare in leaders and company cultures: The ability to identify when a plan isn’t working, and rather than trying to force that square peg into a round hole, pivoting and changing things up.
“The smartest leaders fail forward quickly,” he says. “They find out what doesn’t work super fast. They try something and say, ‘I’m going to give this two months or a month.’ There’s a ripcord. I’ve seen a lot of leaders pursue the same initiatives for years when they’re clearly not working. My advice is fail fast — what we call fail forward — but know what’s working and what’s not. Because you’re going [to find] the initiatives that work for your business much quicker if you don’t get stuck on initiatives that are failing.”
That relates to Altobelli’s strategy of communication. She sees communication as the be-all, end-all of a company culture and leadership strategy. Especially in the age of remote work, clear and compassionate communication is paramount. And, for her, that means talking to her peers, sometimes those who are younger and newer to the industry or the company, and finding out what they think. Seniority does not dictate who gets to raise their hand.
“So, for the younger people coming in, if there’s something I can do different, if there’s something that we can do better, I am completely open to that,” Altobelli says. “I am not afraid to change. That is one thing that I do that I said to them. If there is something, ‘You know, you could be doing this,’ say it! It’s not that I’m for sure going to do it, but the issue is that I want to know if there is something better, and if it is better and easier and faster or whatever, then I am completely going to take that into consideration and change the way we do things. Because younger people do have different perspectives and different points of view, and they work differently than the older people in the industry. And I think that we have to listen to them.”
In Altobelli’s eyes, the worst trait leaders can possess is an ego that gets in the way of their own success.
“Any type of leader, anyone who works for us or with us, we’re all the same people,” she says. “So, treat everyone the same way.”
The idea of treating everyone the same way has become more difficult in recent years, thanks to the fact that everyone is not in the same place all the time. Hybrid work environments mean some companies are working fully remotely. Others have some employees in the office, while others are remote. Some have never even been to their company’s headquarters.
This presents a unique, modern challenge for businesses trying to create a strong, ironclad company culture when their crew is spread out.
Friedman says he was a strict office-only person prior to 2020. Now, things have changed, and he’s adjusted his strategy accordingly.
“A big thing is that I do a monthly all-hands meeting, where everybody jumps on and turns on their cameras, and I do a one-hour state-of-the-union address, and I talk about everything that’s going on in the business, celebrate anniversaries and birthdays and new hires, and give shoutouts to good reviews,” he says.
They also try things like virtual escape rooms and games — anything that gets everyone as close to “together” as possible for something other than just work.
“Nobody can feel like they’re on an island,” Friedman says. “If somebody feels like they’re on an island, we’re not doing a good job.”
Aside from leading by example, Friedman says that iPromo proudly “drinks its own Kool-Aid,” meaning it uses the power of promotional products to build culture and reach employees from afar.
Distributors sell the idea to their customers, so why wouldn’t they use it themselves?
“We hand a lot of swag out, a lot of gifts,” Friedman adds. “Even in a virtual world, the only way to connect with someone in a physical way is to send them a gift. We send swag boxes, apparel, fun items that we’re launching, and everything in-between. That’s been a huge hit, and it’s so fun to see. You turn on your cameras and you see somebody wearing the hoodie they just got because it’s cold outside, and it’s their nicest hoodie, but it has your logo on it.
“That builds culture,” he continues. “That builds tribes. That’s what we do, we build tribes at the core of our business. That’s a huge part of it: wearing the same swag. Why not?”
Whenever possible, Altobelli believes getting together in person is the best way to connect, especially when it involves making a sale and getting other team members involved with the process.
“I am huge on education,” she says. “I do have my MAS+, and I feel that I have been able to really be the best salesperson to my customers just for the plain fact that I am huge on having vendor meetings, whether that’s a virtual meeting or in person, and touching and feeling the products and getting to know that vendor rep. And, of course, during COVID we did those virtually, which, yeah, they have been fine, but it’s just not the same as meeting in person. So, even if someone is 100% out of the office, keeping those touch points with them, maybe having a weekly meeting — again, whether that’s in person or online — I’m a huge proponent for in person, just to go over ideas and what you’re working on, and how everybody can help each other out.“
Find the Right Tool for the Job
If you’re building a baseball team, you wouldn’t select nine people who all play second base. You need to choose people for their roles based on their skill set. Even though your whole team is working toward one common goal, there are different ways different people can help.
Altobelli says that when you’re trying to attract and add talent, look for people who do something different than you or other people on your team, and make sure they understand why they’re the right person for the job. Odds are, they know their strengths, so they want to take a role that they know is right for them, where they are assured they will make a difference.
“Attracting the salespeople — a lot of people are having a really hard time with that right now,” Altobelli says. “And, in my eyes, [it’s] just finding salespeople who are different for the company. If you hire the same type of salesperson, I feel [like] that isn’t going to cover all of your customers’ needs. So, finding that great person who has incredible attention to detail, and follows up, and is not afraid to pick up the phone and call a customer, that type of person is very rare to find right now post-COVID. But if somebody can find that, I think they have a little gem and should ... do what they can to hang onto that person.”
Once you have that unicorn, like Altobelli says, how do you make sure they stay? Philie had some ideas.
“I think it’s having a real clear sense of direction, and letting them know they’re part of a team achieving those goals,” he says. “Here’s where we’re going to go, and we need your help getting there. Making sure that they know they count, they matter, they can make a difference. They’re not just a cog-in-the-wheel type of thing. Even if it’s the person driving a Ford truck or you’re the top salesperson at a company or a top senior leader, they all need to know that their input makes a difference.”
Getting employees to feel like they work in an environment that allows for collaboration from the top-down requires strategic communication. Because, let’s face it, we all remember being the new kid. It’s daunting to try to do too much too soon, and no one wants to make a bad first impression.
Philie says when you communicate effectively and remind the staff that they were brought on for a reason, whether they’ve been there for two months or two decades, they’re more apt to feel secure contributing and believe their ideas have value.
“From the top all the way down to the bottom, the department leads really need to reinforce [the company’s] direction and, ‘Here’s how you can help, here’s how you can make a difference,’” Philie says. That doesn’t mean they’re immune from hard truths, though.
“The other part of it is reinforcing what the expectations are for them,” he adds. “It’s a two-way street, right? Work is not called ‘play.’ We’re trying to accomplish something. And I think it’s letting them know when they’re doing a good job and let them know when they need to change. It’s having both sides of the equation.”
When a leader ignores a team member’s subpar work and doesn’t try to explain how they can improve, the problem can amplify. And that isn’t necessarily the team member’s fault, either. They weren’t told what they’re doing doesn’t work, so how can they be expected to correct their mistakes?
“You get what you tolerate,” Philie says. “It’s one thing if it happens once. But if it continues over and over again, your team or your direction is kind of off track, and you’re bouncing off the guard rails. It’s really hard to bring it back to the center line after a while. It’s not impossible, but it’s really hard.”
And now, for the manager, it’s time to deliver and show why your opinion — whether positive or negative — should be taken into account.
“It’s showing them that you’re not just making this up,” Philie says. “There is structure.”
Those are the hard moments of leadership. It’s great when you get to reinforce positive work, but when you avoid the tough conversations, the tough decisions, or the tough breaks, you’re setting yourself and the team up for failure. It all comes back to accountability.
“Face it: When it’s easy, almost anyone can do it,” Philie says. “But think about the recent thing with Southwest Airlines that happened with all of the flight delays and cancellations and everything. That CEO has been there for 10 months. He didn’t make up the business model for Southwest. He didn’t make up the fact that they had some challenges with their technology. He didn’t make up the fact that it snowed. They had a black swan event with the snow. But he’s got to deal with it. That’s the one thing I see sometimes: People just avoiding, thinking they’ll fix themselves. We say, ‘Hope is not a strategy.’ It’s great, but it’s not a strategy."
Use Common Sense
It should now be clear that being a good manager is a lot like being a good friend or partner. You need to be clear with your intentions from the get-go, you can’t play games, you need to keep an open line of communication, and be willing to grow together to make sure everyone is happy and their needs are met.
Interpersonal relationships aren’t that different, whether it’s business or personal. Who would’ve thought?
Most importantly, however, is being accountable. Do what you say. Stick to your word. If your name is at the top of the company contact page, then you’re the one who might have to make some hard decisions or field some unpleasant phone calls. How you handle those stressful moments will set the tone for the rest of your team, and they’ll act accordingly.
“One of my favorite quotes is: ‘Time and pressure make diamonds,’” Friedman says. “Growing a business and building a business is like jumping off a cliff and building the airplane on the way down. And it couldn’t be more true. People sink or swim.”