Jay Wilkinson on Company Culture at TEDxLincoln (Full Transcript)

Well I have two ways to deal with haters and it’s a silver bullet. You might want to write this down because it’s really a great way to deal with these people.

Number one: don’t hire them. And I know that sounds really simple but you can get a really good sense of who complains all the time in an interview just by asking the right questions.

Number two: If it’s too late, fire them immediately. These are the people in your company that become cancers, that make it impossible for you to build a culture around.

And the third thing that we did is we began to live our values every day. At Firespring we have a daily meeting called the firestarter and it’s at 11:11 everyday that lasts for 11 minutes. So tomorrow’s going to be a cool day on 11:11/11/11/11, right? So we have this meeting every day and everyone in the company, one person from every department will report on the different things that they’re working on as a company to make sure that we’re staying on track. So we all know what everyone else is working on all the time.

And then we recognize each other, we call each other out in public. This person did a great job, they’re really caring, this person’s accountable, we actually share how we’re interacting with people in the office every day. And then on an ongoing basis we have this grid and I love this grid, it’s one of the most important discoveries that we’ve made as a way to really understand and assess how we’re doing as a culture.

So at the top of this grid you see your high-level performers. At the bottom you see your low-level performers, that’s pretty simple, right? You’re going to put everybody in one column or the other. And then from right to left we have people who live our values to people who don’t live our values. If you do the exercise, even if you’re an employee at your company, and you’re not the boss, put everybody in your department and your team in one of these boxes and see where they fall. And then it’s easy to evaluate from there.

Well, these are your high-level performers and live your values; these are your superstars you want to build your company around them. These people down here that are low-level performers but have great value, let’s coach them and teach them how to do their job. The people down here in the corner: why are they in your company? They should not be there. Move on, move past them. It’s this upper box, the one that causes 95% of all the problems in every company, every one of the companies that we worked for, these people that are high-level performers but they don’t live the values of our company, they’re like a cancer eating away at the culture of our business. And that’s what we need to focus on and get rid of those people.

So few things on Firespring in action here. This is just some pictures of around our office. When somebody comes to our office, they see that we are a fun culture, we like to have a good time, we like to poke fun at ourselves. And we really value learning as well but we also do very serious things. We have a theme every quarter that makes it possible for us to rally the entire company around a common goal. And last quarter it was about 300 wows. We wanted to get our customers to say “Wow” or “Amazing”, “You guys are great” or something — we had some approved phrases and every time they did we’d write it down on a piece of paper and add it to the wall of wow. We had over 500 by the end of the quarter. It was an awesome promotion.

And we have a group in our company that is the arbiters of culture, we call them the culture club. And our culture club is not led by Boy George, it’s led by my boy Randy here. And Randy and I have worked together for nearly 20 years and we can nearly finish each other’s sentences so I trust him implicitly with being the steward of our company culture. And together as a team the culture team makes decisions about things that go beyond planning the company party. When we have to make a decision on updating or renewing our insurance policy, these people sit down and they help us make the decision of what insurance carrier we’re going to use.

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And then we have things like Cinco de Mayo. Well this year we changed it up to Cinco de mustache and we gave an award to the person that grew the best mustache; congratulations Brian, that was pretty awesome. And we have the Firespring Pub & Putt Classic where the whole team gets together and they build out holes and people come around in groups of four and they golf and we give awards for the most creative and most inspiring and most challenging holes. Last year the group that won the most creative was a group that themed their department around a fraternity party and they all had matching shirts and paddles and of course they had a composite with their housemother Oprah on it as well. And the winner of the green jacket is somebody that’s revered throughout the year because it’s a coveted award. We paid a dollar $1.54 at a thrift store somewhere and this is one of the most coveted awards we have every year.

And yes, we have a holiday party but the thing that’s most important to us is the one that we created back in the days when we had no money, we had no ability to do anything and the employees created their own party on their own money. They used — they brought potato chips and beverages and did their own thing.

My favorite tradition of all time, though, is our thanksgiving event. We get the entire company around one table. The company provides the turkey and the staff all brings the sides and the desserts. And it’s really an opportunity to create fellowship among our staff.

So to us like life, culture is a journey, it’s not a destination. It’s about all the little things you do in life and I’m very inspired by Steve Jobs and his commencement address in 2005 at Stanford, many of you probably, I’m sure, have watched that. He said your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking; don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it and like any great relationship it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

The fascinating thing to me is that — we know that the things we really need to be passionate about are friends and family and faith, the things that are core to our being. But the average person spends more waking hours at work than they do anywhere else. Why wouldn’t you want to live in a place that feeds you rather than deplete you of energy?

And so I’d like to finish with just this email that a coworker shared with me. This came to me last August just out of the blue. And it says: “Jay, I was getting ready for work this morning, excited for the waffle breakfast. And it occurred to me that I look forward to quite a few things that are related to my job. I have a tendency to gush about Firespring, I rave about the company: the work, the people, our clients, the fun things we do. Sometimes I get so enthusiastic I feel like a cheerleader on speed. I’m so eager to express my happiness and contentment to family, friends and neighbors but I realize that I’ve never actually told you, the person who made it all possible. This is my thank you. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the opportunity to work at such an extraordinary company, my cup runneth over.”

So how would you thank you — how would you feel if you woke up every morning knowing that this is the sentiment of the people you work with? This — these are the values that you live every day and this is an average common day. This is what happens when you don’t leave culture to chance. This is what happens when you don’t settle. This is culture by design and any one of us can be the architect.

Thank you.