Jay Wilkinson on Company Culture at TEDxLincoln (Full Transcript)

Let me give an illustration of somebody in our company .This person here in the middle name, her name is Wendy Schuman, she’s classed being a ball of rice at lunch and learn we did on making sushi. Wendy started in our company nine years ago. She basically was coming on board as I was getting fired, thank goodness she didn’t know it at the time, she probably wouldn’t have accepted the job offer. So Wendy last year got a call from a company that was looking for programmers and people that did what she does. And she was an average, she talked with them. They offered Wendy a substantially higher amount of money than we were able to pay her in our company. She toiled over it for days and she came in and talked to us about it with tears in her eyes. And I don’t know what to do. She talked with her husband, went back and forth and finally made the decision that it was in the best interest of her family if she takes this job. So she shed more tears, she gave us hugs and she said goodbye and Wendy went off into the sunset.

72 hours later, the phone rang and it’s Wendy. “Can I come back?” She was whispering from the desk of her new job. Well, she had to have a couple more days there to work out our first week but she came back. We now affectionately refer to this time period in our company as Wendy’s vacation.

And here’s the interesting thing. In our company today, 10% of our entire workforce are people that have worked for us in the past, gone on in their careers to do other things and then come back home. That is a testament to culture.

And today I’m going to share with you three steps that we use at Firespring to design a sustainable company culture that we can build around and do something big with.

And the first thing is to define our values. We first need to know what values are. Values are the guiding principles of your company, the things that are median tangible that you can really understand and sink your teeth into. And once your values are clear, decisions are easy. There are typical core values that most companies tend to subscribe to, and I’m showing a list of them here: innovative, team player, excellence, integrity, passion — I bet that your company probably has at least one of these in their list of values.

What’s the most common thing or what’s the most important thing to know about this list of values? Well, they’re unimaginative, they’re uninspired, they are bland and they don’t work, because people don’t internalize these things. They’re too generic. Everybody says this: think about it — can you think of a single company on the planet who wouldn’t say they’re innovative? Yeah, we tend to be more stifled here at our company. We’re not really innovative. And integrity, that’s not really our thing. More cheaters, liars, stealers whatever. I mean companies say they have all of these things, right? So don’t start off with the plain simple, dig a little bit deeper and in the words of Apple: think different.

Here’s how to discover your values. This is the exercise we use at Firespring to go through the process and I call this the reality show exercise. And think about doing this in your company, gather the people in your company together and put them around in a room, and say that you’ve got a reality show coming in and they’re going to be filming three of your employees every minute of the day all week long, everything that they do. And they’re going to be filming them based on their actions because there’s no audio on this film. When we watch it back, we’re not going to hear anything. We have to see by their actions. So you need to choose three people in your company who best embody the values that you believe in, the things that you want to be known for as a company. Have everybody in your company do this exercise and think in their heads, they don’t have to say the names out loud, that gets a little creepy, right? But they think of the names and they start writing the words down, they envision themselves watching the tape back and writing the words down that they think of when they’re watching this employee.

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At the end of that exercise you have a really good idea of what your company values and it comes from everyone inside the company, not just the CEO or one person thinking about it. And then you put it through this test, you decide: is this value distinguished? Is it different? Is it unique? Are you obsessed with it? Can you build an obsession around it? Will it outlive you, the owner or the manager of the employees of the company? Can you actually live this value every day? And are you willing to sacrifice profit to protect it? If you answered yes to all five of these things, then you have an opportunity to build around that value. It’s that simple to create it.

The second thing we went through as we started focusing on hiring for our values, this sounds a lot simpler than it really is: to hire for your values. Back in the day, in those dark days as we call them now, when we were going through the struggles, there were a couple holes on our management team. I had to go out and impress venture capitalists which is a hard thing to do. And I thought the best way to do that would be to hire a few people that could fill in some of these holes, they had big impressive-looking resumes. But you know what? I knew from the day that I met them and started the conversation in my gut that they were not good culture fits for our company. But I did it anyway because I thought well they look good on paper and we need these people. There are things they know that we don’t know. And I knew from day one that they weren’t good fits and every time I’ve made that decision or any one of our managers in our company made that decision we’ve lived to regret it. We’ve lived to regret it every time. So now we hire first for culture fit and second for skill fit.

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