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Why I won’t work for an organization that doesn’t prioritize company culture

One employee talks about why investing in culture means investing in your company’s success.

With five years in the startup world under her belt, Laura Bruestle has witnessed firsthand how vital it is that companies invest in company culture, not just for the wellbeing of employees, but to boost their motivation and company growth as a whole. Her career has made her a passionate advocate for culture initiatives and how they can affect a company’s vitality. As a young team leader and project manager, she’s learned that without a thriving company culture, employee retention, and subsequently growth, will always suffer. We sat down with Laura to talk to her about why she won’t work for a company again where company culture and employee development isn’t a priority.

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As you’ve risen through the ranks as a team lead the startup world, you’ve become more and more passionate about company culture. Why?

The more companies I get to know, the more important I realize company culture is to me. Lots of companies have these big buzzwords written down on paper [employee development, flat hierarchies, etc.], but they don’t do anything to reflect those values. It’s been very interesting to see if startups, depending on their size and age, are actually working on creating a good company culture or if they haven’t even thought about it yet. Often with young startups, the management doesn’t have to do anything: they’re full of young people who are motivated, and they create a good company culture on their own. It’s during the growth period that the management really needs to become aware that the staff won’t stay engaged and motivated on its own. It’s something you have to nurture.

Let’s talk about some different experiences you’ve had at your various jobs. Can you describe the different approaches your employers have taken concerning employee development and what the reaction from you or the staff was?

The first startup I worked for had a great company culture for the first few months, but growth made it difficult to keep it, and eventually the company outgrew it. At a certain point, I felt that we should make company culture a topic. When I expressed this, the CEO told me that he didn’t think it was his responsibility to do anything about company culture, that if the employees didn’t feel motivated in the company that they should just leave. And this was the CEO!

At another company I worked for, there was also no real investment in company culture. But there, the employees got together to do an initiative where we actually pushed for things we cared about and worked on the things we wanted to improve. We called it “the culture initiative”: we formed small committees and got together regularly, and then we took any concerns or ideas we had to management. I was on two committees myself and we met twice a week. We organized social events, bonuses, discounts; It wasn’t anything new or groundbreaking, but it was important to us. It just goes to show that once a company is of a certain size and if enough employees think about it or care about it, things can be changed from below. It was also about putting a bit of pressure on the management, to say that if 15% of employees are working actively on a culture initiative, that means there’s enough momentum to bring about some change.

Can a high salary alone help companies motivate employees, or is job satisfaction really key?

When you’re younger, money motivates you a lot more and you don’t think about other topics as much, but for me personally, raises don’t move me emotionally anymore. At a certain point in my career, the money didn’t hugely impact my quality of life. What’s much more important is liking the company and feeling like you’re a good cultural fit there, that you’re on the same wavelength concerning how you view your work/life balance, how you feel about the company, etc. Especially because I’m someone who always leads a team: I want to work at a company where I can devote enough time to personal development and feedback, making sure that my team is happy. And if this is not part of the company culture I will never be able to make that time.

In larger companies, many employees are there for a job; they’re not there to join a project or to work on something they feel passionate about. They’re more likely to stick to their working hours or demand overtime instead of being passionately invested in their work. But empowering them and cultivating a healthy company culture can change that. I really believe that the more dedicated and passionate you are about your work, the more effective you’ll be and the better job you’re going to do.

To what extent do you think millennials are more interested in company culture than those of previous generations?

Obviously we have higher expectations concerning our companies, there’s plenty of research on this. But I also think companies have to compete for talent so much these days, and that’s what’s driving the change. We have the mentality that we’re willing to go if we’re unhappy, and companies feel the need to cater to this new generation that’s working for them.

Is it possible for employees to influence company culture on their own?

If you’re a manager there is a lot you can do. Even without a budget: I used to have table tennis events at the office after work. We didn’t need additional money for it, we would just get together and pop a few frozen pizzas in the oven. Spending free time together helps too, as does socializing with other departments. If you have several people in the company who care about company culture, just get people together, and go all together to the management, which is better than going individually to the CEO. This gives them more pressure.

What kind of training courses do people need to help propel company culture?

You have to make sure that the people leading teams are trained in how to do it. That’s something startups don’t think about early enough. It’s not something that comes naturally to everyone and it’s a skill set they should have. Leaders are key in fostering a good culture in the workplace. Apart from that, asking your employees what skills they need to do their job, what could help them do their job better. If HR just sends an email around saying, “Hey, we’re doing a new project management training, who wants to participate?” — who’s that relevant for? Maybe it’s relevant for me, but not for someone else. The thing to ask is: what are the personal needs your employee has, what are the professional needs your employee has, because it’s the culmination of those needs being met that help company culture.

These days, webinars and e-learning are becoming very popular, which I think can be helpful, but if someone is explaining to you how to give proper and precise feedback, that should come from a human. I think it’s very important to differentiate between technical and analytical training, which can definately come from e-learning, but in terms of the soft skills, I think it’s really important to not lose the human touch there. These training courses should come from a person who helps you experiment and practice your new skills.

That makes sense. Any last bits of advice for employers and employees seeking to enhance and improve the culture of their workplace?

It’s not a one-way street, you can’t ask management to give you everything on a silver platter, but managers can’t expect the employees to do it all on their own either. So there has to be an understanding: something that both sides care about. This happens when management shows up to events, for example, and employees as well. If you don’t participate in the company culture, you can’t complain about it not being good.