Company culture is a tricky thing.

Did you know that 50% of Canadians don’t like their jobs? That means that half your staff is currently wondering how to get a new job. That statistic scares me because it’s flippin’ hard to find and train good people. In fact, I’m nervously glancing at my team right now wondering which ones are the unhappy ones. 

The truth about employee retention is you can’t make everyone happy no matter how much you pay them, and some people are going to quit and go to your competitor, move to Saskatoon, or leave to marry that guy they met online. Your workplace is not a prison (or is it?). However, I strongly believe that creating good company culture dramatically increases employee engagement and improves retention.

There was a huge paradigm shift in workplaces a few years ago, I’m sure to be blamed on millennials (if they are responsible for the end of marmalade, they must surely be blamed for this, too). But, people woke up one day and wanted to be happy and connected going to work. Myself included. 

We spend 50% of our waking hours at work, and if you’ve had more than three jobs in your life, you most likely know the agony of doing shitty work with shitty people. I would much rather show up to a company that believes in doing meaningful work with meaningful people, and that’s where the concept of tribes begins. Seth Godin, author of the bestselling book Tribes describes a tribe as “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.”

These connected tribes are powerful, too. Happy employees are 12% more productive. They are engaged, they come up with innovative ideas, they are protective of each other, and, they are 87% less likely to leave their jobs. What? Those are ridiculous life-changing-business-building kind of statistics!

So what can you do to get employees to buy in to your brand and build a tribe of your own?

After 20 years as a business owner and Creative Director, I can tell you it’s not easy. You don’t just read a self-help book and wake up one day with a team of magical, engaged unicorn employees. It’s hard work, every day, and it requires me to be a present and passionate leader, even when I’m having a crappy day and would give anything to spend an uninterrupted hour in Sephora. 

Here are some of my guiding (and somewhat unconventional) principles that will help you create a corporate culture and brand that employees can feel connected to. I think these are unique to my personality and to the brand of our company, but they are still good guidelines to start you on your own tribe-building journey.

Be a fearless leader.

As an owner or manager, it’s one thing to be talented at your profession, but it’s a whole other thing to step up and lead your team. Some days you need to listen, some days you need to make hard decisions and some days you need to protect your team. However, every day you need to be fierce in holding your ground on your values. Passing the buck does not qualify you as a fearless leader. You need to be the one who steps up and allows others to stand behind you, and who never, ever throws the team under the bus. You can always go home and get drunk after.

Show appreciation.

I get it, you’re busy. It’s easy to forget something or be dismissive when you’re multi-tasking (and trust me, you will be multi-tasking). But grab your grande triple shot latte and get appreciating. One of your employees worked hard on something, they were proud of their work. They showed up early, or stayed late. They might have even just changed the roll of toilet paper. Say something. Appreciate the small things and the big things. Buy them lunch, or at least say thanks. You’d be surprised how far a simple acknowledgment will go to make someone feel like they matter.

Don’t let just anyone into the tribe.

It’s hard to tell in a couple of interviews and sometimes even after a month or two of employment if someone fits in with your team, but you need to get smarter at watching for signs that they aren’t jiving with your vibe. Employees who do not fit in with your team or don’t believe in your core values are like poison to your tribe. They lower team morale, interrupt workflow balances, and make you look bad to your customers. It might not be an easy thing to do, but either get smarter with your interview process, or cut them loose before their three month probationary period. You can’t be wishy-washy here. (I hate that saying and yes, I said it anyways.)

Be genuine.

I know that some days I have to make the kind of decisions that other people here don’t have to make. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be genuine in who I am. I follow our company core values because I believe in them. I talk to my team, I tell them about my life, and have a sincere interest in their life. I’d be happy to bust out a bottle of wine with any single one of our staff. The moral of the story here is just be real. Employees will rally behind a company brand if it’s managed and staffed by a bunch of these amazing genuine people. And another interesting upside to this? Customers want to buy from these genuine company brands. It’s a whole genuine love fest.

Eat together.

When is the last time you ate with your team? Not with another manager or VP, but with the people who work for you? For years I worked places where lunch was at my desk, in my car, sometimes with a couple of other co-workers, or just never happened at all. I never once during 10 years in the agency world pre-Studiothink (except for the awkward annual drunk Christmas parties), ever ate with a single one of my managers or the CEO.  

When I started Studiothink, I longed for the type of office where people gathered and bonded, and I wanted a common area where everyone could mingle. Turns out there was a reason for that. Cornell University did a study a few years ago proving that “eating is such a primal behaviour that it can be extraordinarily meaningful.” Their study showed that eating together was a central component of keeping teams operating effectively, and makes them feel like a family. The findings also showed that eating together boosts camaraderie, fosters deeper working relationships, boosts productivity and makes people happier. At our office it also makes for some interesting gossip, wedding planning and Game of Thrones analysis.

Don’t be an asshole.

I debated if I was being too brash by putting this one in, but it truly is the perfect thing to ask yourself before making decisions. I guess I could have sugar-coated it and said ‘do what’s right’ but that didn’t sound as impactful. Talking behind people’s backs, complaining, stealing, cutting corners, over billing, under performing, lying, using underhanded business tactics, being sneaky, the list goes on. All of these type of things fall into the general category of asshole. So just, well, don’t do anything that would put you in this category. Unless of course you’re an asshole who doesn’t know better, in which case you either don’t have a tribe, or, you’re about to get fired from a tribe. The company is a better place without you, asshole.

Empower people.

This final one is a biggie. If you micromanage, doubt, double-check or mistrust your employees, how can you expect them to step up, manage and contribute? Of course you have to lay the groundwork of expectations and training, and you have to put the right core values into play with great people, but then step back. Trust that they are doing the right thing and doing their jobs. If they can’t, or won’t, it will become apparent pretty quickly, but you have to empower and trust that they can indeed handle things without your constant interference. My fave biz author Simon Sinek did a little 58 second video that drives home this point.

The bottom line.

The above guidelines will go a long way toward building a company brand that your tribe can get behind. But I’m not going to lie, it’s a constant work in progress that can never be left on the back burner. I’m always re-evaluating, tweaking and learning things that will improve the quality of my company and the people in it. Have I been 100% successful? No, that one guy in the corner over there is probably looking at job listings right now. I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that our turnover rate has significantly decreased and our quality has significantly increased since having a team of empowered, connected and happy people, and that’s a trend I don’t intend to ignore.