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It’s Not all Fun and Perks: What Company Culture Really Means

What is culture? In tech, we often find ourselves re-hashing the same old topics of foosball tables and free beer, or the “upgraded” perks of onsite chefs and free massages when it comes to talking about company culture. After all, from everything we read, great company culture is no longer a wish list item, but a strategic imperative in attracting and retaining talent. Further, there are myriad surveys and studies that prove strong, authentic company culture leads to better business outcomes.

Several years back, a professor from Columbia University did a survey of CEOs and CFOs globally and found that only 15 percent of them felt their company culture was where it should be. It’s a pain point for many, as it seems every big tech company is layering on another perk – even going so far as to build towns for their employees to live in.

But I have some great news for those of you who have been agonizing over the blueprints for your new town: that is not company culture. Culture is in your values and your actions, not in the cans of craft beer in the breakroom fridge.

But if culture can’t be bought, then how does a tech company build great culture while also driving goals and business outcomes?

Inside Out

In a world of cool toys and shiny objects, many of us are focused on getting back to basics. It starts with this familiar question: who are you and what are you doing here? Your employees should know how to answer that question when asked about their jobs, and if they don’t, then start there. Your employees’ passion inside the walls of your company is something no amount of branding can emulate. They have to know where you’re going and what part they play in helping the company get there. Moreover, they have to believe that they will personally benefit as the company succeeds.

What truly drives company culture for team members is when they know they are needed and making an impact; that they are valued and that they have a broader mission than merely being another cog in the wheel. As I’ve often said to our folks, when you can spend the bulk of your working hours solving challenging problems that leverage your skills, knowledge and experience, and do it in teams full of amazingly talented, yet humble, people, that’s about as good as it gets.

Fun Matters

It may not be all of the fun perks that make company culture, but I’d be remiss to discount it as at least one piece in the overall culture pie chart, if you will. Some perks are table stakes, like employee-managed PTO, which is quickly becoming universal in tech. The “fun” that I’m talking about, is the fun that will attract the people you want to hire. At SailPoint, we do have craft beer and a ping pong table in the breakrooms. We’ve also got our (somewhat infamous) bowls of candy in the lobbies. Then there are traditions like our annual family picnic and our regular charitable projects and community involvement. Those are the things our employees look forward to, but that aren’t consuming their time or encouraging them to spend more time at work than is necessary.

The qualifier for fun is this: how is it activating your employees and enabling them to be better? The list could go on here, but think about it in a few ways: employee team-building, personal refreshment and restoration, career growth, and perhaps most importantly, giving back. It’s not a perfect mold, but let those qualifiers guide you.

But Your Values Matter More

The common thread that should knit together the business and the fun parts of your culture are your values. Our four core corporate values – innovation, impact, integrity and individuals – inform everything that happens at SailPoint. I can confidently say that’s why our employees like to work here and why we are considered a best place to work year after year. It might seem obvious, but values provide a sort of social contract in the workplace. Corporate values that are taken seriously give everyone a unified view of “who we are” and a common ground to meet on when things go wrong (and they will).

Mirror, Mirror

What’s important is that you create a culture that strengthens your identity as a company. Your reputation proceeds you (and you have a reputation, whether you like it or not). So, when you’re thinking of the culture that you’re nurturing, does it align with your values? Are you adding on perks just to make work seem more enticing? Do your employees have a purpose? And, critically, are you bringing in the kind of people who enhance, rather than undermine, that culture?  As the well-known venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla has said, “A company becomes the people it hires, not the plans it makes.”

By examining the culture at the foundation of your company, you can build a culture, and company, that lasts.