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How To Boost Your Startup's Culture Next Year

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Startup culture has become somewhat of a cliché: ping pong tables, bean bag chairs, unlimited snacks. But snacks do not make a culture. These surface items mean nothing if they do not reflect a deeper satisfaction within the work place. So, how can burgeoning startups dig deep and ensure engaged employees and a positive environment? I sat down with Shawn Konopinsky, CEO of Toronto-based Nascent to find out.

Q: How do you define culture within your company?

A: I don't believe there is a straightforward way to define culture. In fact, I don't worry about definitions and simply focus on the human part of the company, on how people are feeling and the energy within the team. A great culture is when all team members are happy, when they are productive because they feel empowered and engaged. Great culture is when people feel that their craft is supported and their successes celebrated. You know you have a good culture when people are excited to come to work each day.

Q: If culture isn't so tangible, how do you communicate it to new members of the team?

A: Talk is cheap. Every company has their values written down somewhere, but few companies live them. Instead of trying to communicate values by telling new people what the values are, show them how those values come to life in your company! It all starts with the executive team and trickles down to all employees. As an executive, you should be the first one to roll up your sleeves and lead by example.

Q: How do you go about ensuring people understand the values?

A: Always communicate values in context. As simple words, values don't do much because they don't communicate the depth that underlies them. "Teamwork" or "Collaboration" for example appear in many company's values, but few actually live the true meaning. Understanding is believing, and believing is seeing. So don't just say values, show newcomers what the values mean in the context of their craft and in day-to-day work.

Q: How do you check for internal alignment?

A: Talk to people! You don't have to onboard fancy tools; you can just meet every team member once a month -- it's more than possible in a startup. This also reinforces that management listens to every person on the team.

Q: What do you think are the biggest culture killers?

A: There are a few I can think of. First, it's inconsistency- when execs say one thing, and then do something different. Discipline, consistent thought and action are key. Second, confusion on why certain things are done. Forget "because I said so" -- this is awful in any company, but in a startup, it's the absolute worst. People need to understand why they are doing something in order to do it to the best of their abilities. Third is executive abdication -- when you, as an exec, aren't in the trenches with the rest of the team.

Q: It's not uncommon to part ways with employees. How do you make sure it doesn't hurt the culture?

A: If you stay consistent with your values, seeing people who aren't the right fit for the company isn't too difficult. At the end of the day, they likely feel the same way and the separation will be amicable. Just stay consistent with your values throughout the lifecycle of an employee, including their departure.

I think it's worth pointing out that you never want to see people leave for the wrong reasons (e.g. not learning new things, not being adequately challenged, lack of support for their craft, etc.). If they leave for a good reason, you should be celebrating with them. If people feel excited to come to work every day, they won't be leaving or concerned if others leave for a "good" reason (e.g. family, change of career, something that interests them personally, etc.).

Q: Everyone likes hearing "hacks" to get a quick fix. Can you think of any hacks that startup execs can implement now to see quick results?

A: Start getting more involved in the success of your team: Sit amongst your team, jump in the middle of the action, help unblock big issues so they can produce great work, and genuinely care.

In other words, in order to generate a kick ass company culture, you've got to walk the walk. Values must be performed, employees must be recognized, and communication must be a two-way street. A positive and engaging workplace cannot and will not thrive in a "do as I say, not as I do" environment - It's a top down movement that requires significant dedication from an already busy c-suite. But if anyone can do it, it's the always innovative startup.

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