How to Improve Company Culture: Lessons from Leaders

By SGW Team

“Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”

– Michael Scott, The Office

Plenty of TV-famous bosses believe they truly know how to motivate their team — or how to improve company culture — yet we laugh and scratch our heads at their blunders. Cringe-worthy leaders exist in real life, too — only their gaffes aren’t as funny in real time, at the workplace.

How about at your organization? Do individuals in leadership roles inspire and excite their team(s) — or are employees discouraged and unmotivated? How do its leaders handle themselves in a crisis? What are the interactions between leaders and employees like? Do they communicate honestly and openly? The answers to these questions are often indicative of the state of a company’s internal culture. (Glassdoor reviews, exit interviews, etc. can also serve as an effective litmus test that reveals just how healthy a company’s culture is.)

Culture Check: Identifying Our Shortcomings

In part one of our Conversations on Culture Series, we discussed several reasons why it’s important for a product design firm to have a healthy culture. After examining ours here at SGW Designworks, we knew it was time to make a few changes — changes that had to start at the top. It all came down to the state of our culture — how we treat each other, how we treat our clients, and the overall impact we have on one another.

In early 2020, we began identifying some shortcomings — several of which became more apparent as our employees transitioned to remote work at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, silos tend to develop at a product design firm like ours, which means product engineers and product designers don’t always have 1) visibility into certain elements of a project or 2) input on aspects that impact them or their work.

To gain insight into how to improve company culture, we turned to leaders within our industry (and some industry-adjacent) who are also leading the way in creating a healthy culture in their own companies. In talking with these leaders, observing their behaviors, and learning from their wins (and losses), we were able to determine a starting point for reshaping our own company culture. Here are a few lessons we’ve learned from leaders (and their respective organizations) who have inspired us.

Love (Yes, Love) as a Business Strategy

Mohammad Anwar, Softway Solutions

The word “love” isn’t used often in the workplace, let alone in engineering circles — but maybe it should be. As is the case at most companies, this quality was lacking at Softway Solutions, a successful Texas-based digital marketing and web development firm. Instead, the environment at the company was characterized by fear and an obsession with numbers. Even when they had valuable input, employees were afraid to question authority. They were also marginalized, in that less-experienced product engineers were excluded from participating in project-related and business-level decisions, which was hampering the company’s ability to innovate. 

However, after the market shifted and Softway lost several clients almost overnight — the company had to unexpectedly lay off roughly a third of its workforce. For Softway’s CEO Mohammad Anwar, this led to a period of introspection: the company’s culture was having a negative impact — and it needed to change.

Over the next few years, Softway made significant shifts toward creating a culture of love, rather than one of fear and marginalization. Anwar even wrote a book about the experience, which has been hailed as a “people-first framework for achieving any business outcome.” The company’s cultural shift has become a model to follow for organizations around the globe — and for us.

After speaking to Anwar about how to improve company culture (and reading his book, Love as a Business Strategy: Resilience, Belonging, & Success), we found his journey to be helpful in guiding ours at SGW. For starters, our top priority was once to execute a project in the most efficient way possible, so we may not always have put our youngest engineer on a project. But according to Anwar’s “love-first” approach, this person has value and should be engaged. Plus, involving them means they improve their skills and bring fresh, innovative ideas to the table — everybody wins! This is just one small step we’re taking to build a culture of love and inclusivity — one where everyone can contribute. 

Offering Feedback with Radical Candor

Kim Scott, Author, CEO Coach, and former Google/Apple executive

After leading teams at AdSense, YouTube, and Google, and coaching CEOs at tech companies like Dropbox, Qualtrics, and Twitter, Kim Scott learned a thing or two about successfully leading great teams. So she wrote a book about it. Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing Your Humanity quickly became a best-seller and sparked the founding of a company that “helps people have better relationships at work and do the best work of their lives.”

In an INBOUND Bold Talk, Scott explains, “Radical candor happens when you fulfill your moral obligation — it’s not just your job, it’s your moral obligation — to say what you really think, and to allow yourself to challenge others, but also to be challenged in return.” She continues, “When you can challenge people directly at the same time that you care personally and humanly about them — I call that radical candor.”

It’s crucial that a product design firm like ours communicate quickly and concisely at every stage of the development process. Well, as we’ve begun engaging with radical candor — both within our own company and with our clients — we’ve sped up the feedback loop. This doesn’t mean we lack a filter. Instead, it means we’re able to give and receive candid feedback — with the assurance that it’ll be handled productively — because we’ve built a foundation of trust and genuine care for our clients and our team.

As we continue to consider how to improve company culture, the bottom line is: our clients need to know we’re here to help them (and that we’re not just focused on revenue and billable hours). This, like other cultural shifts, has to start with leadership. So, we’re intentionally communicating to our clients — throughout a project — that we care deeply about their businesses and their success. This has often meant opting for person-to-person conversations rather than written correspondence. In the past, if we had to break tough news to a client, we may have labored unnecessarily over the tone of an email. These days, however, we have candid discussions that might sound like, “Due to [x] challenge, this may be a difficult way path forward, but here’s where we are and what you need to know.”

Building a Culture of Joy

Menlo Innovations 

Michigan-based Menlo Innovations walks the talk when it comes to creating an inviting — and even joyful — work environment. To achieve this, the company has built a culture around teamwork, transparency, and acceptance — which requires admitting you need help, for instance. The company is naturally social, communicative, and there is a noticeable lack of hierarchy. (Menlo even makes personnel decisions as a team, not via an HR department.) “Our processes, our culture, our work ethic — they all aim toward a single goal: joy,” says the company’s website. 

As we move forward in our mission to “improve human existence” at SGW, we, too, want our team and all who come in contact with us to experience joy. And for us to achieve that, we, too, have found that trust, transparency, and clarity are key.

How to Improve Company Culture: “Total Transparency”

As we reflected on these companies’ journeys (and input from their leadership), we’ve had to get honest with ourselves — and our employees — about where we need to make changes.

We began by sitting down with two to three members of our team at a time, discussing our culture candidly — explaining what we’ve learned from other leaders, owning up to our mistakes, and committing to change. And, because change starts at the top, those in leadership positions at SGW outlined what changes they’d be implementing — and, because our intent is to empower both individual employees and teams, we have invited them to regularly share their feedback along the way. “Our new default mode is total transparency,” says SGW Designworks CEO Ryan Gray.

The response we received from our team was positive — and eye-opening. Some of our employees were indeed feeling marginalized, or that their level of responsibility had been lessened, so they felt validated by this discussion. Others who were already highly engaged didn’t expect a major transition individually — but affirmed that changing company culture in these ways would be good for others in our organization.

Moving forward, we’re changing company culture by approaching it head-on — with a mindset of love, radical candor, and joy (among other things). We’re being honest with one another about where we’ve made mistakes. We’re getting crystal clear about changes we can make that will improve our culture. And we’re asking for input from our team as we rewrite the rules. 

“We’re trying to create an environment where all of our team members have an exceptionally high level of trust for one another,” says Gray. “When you have that, and you’re all trying to achieve the same goals — as a team and for your clients — you can do great things.”

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