Why Your Corporate Culture Needs an Overhaul

The link between culture and business success is strong, but few firms put much thought into theirs. What you can do to improve yours

Written by Christina Pellegrini

The biggest reason Laurel Sim joined Canadian professional staffing company Taleo Project Services in 2012 wasn’t the pay or the perks: it was its culture. She and founder Matthew Hillhouse both valued honesty, humility, respect and collaboration. She fit in well. In fact, last summer she became a partner.

Cultivating a rich corporate culture is the second most popular way for emerging companies to entice employees to stick around after stock-based compensation plans, according to a PwC survey published last May. Another PWC survey, from its Strategy& consulting arm, shows that while 86 per cent of C-suite execs link culture to business success, more than half believe their corporate culture needs an overhaul and even fewer think it’s managed well internally.

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We talk about culture extensively, but it appears Taleo is one of the few businesses getting it right. From 2010 to 2012, the Calgary-based company’s sales grew a striking 984% to almost $6.3 million, a figure that propelled it into the top 20 of PROFIT’s most recent Hot 50 Ranking of Canada’s Top New Growth Companies. In 2010, it had just five employees. Today, Taleo has 35 contract consultants and six full-time staffers, proving you can grow your team and maintaining the shared vision and culture the business was founded on.

It starts with hiring, says Sim. “It’s imperative to know what you want,” she says, referring to both the technical requirements of a position and especially the intangible qualities such as corporate fit. “Otherwise you’re just putting a bum in a seat.”

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In addition to hiring people who it can count on to preserve its culture, Taleo keeps score of whether its people behave the way Sim and Hillhouse would like them to when the company reviews its strategic plan every quarter. Open dialogue is key and always encouraged.

When the company does go astray, “usually it comes down to maybe not being true to our values,” Sim says. “So that’s when we do an evaluation of what we missed, how we missed it and how can we make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

MORE VALUES WORTH KEEPING: How to Maintain Your Early Culture As You Grow »

One of Taleo’s best clients, most of which are involved in information technology in Alberta’s resource sector, has set up a special advisory board with a similar mandate. It’s diligent in its reviews.

But can you build a company culture from ground up? When he founded it in 1984, John Holland’s environmental consulting firm Pinchin West had just one employee—himself. As the lone staffer, he did it all, and that connection to all aspects of the business is a principle he still holds dear. Today, the president and majority shareholder presides over a business with 170 employees in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan. Current senior managers tend to come from junior positions. Holland even assigns himself a hands-on project every year, just so he can see what his employees, who are spread across nine offices, see in the field everyday.

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This way, “you don’t get an entitled hierarchy,” says Holland, a professional civil engineer. “You’ve got people who have experience doing grassroots work.”

But for Holland, culture is about much more than the work. It’s about treating staff like people rather than just your workers and creating intimate and genuine relationships. “You have to like and care for each other,” he adds. “You have to have a culture where you walk into an office or go to a Christmas party and feel like people actually want to be there.” That’s not the case for many people, though, who just show face at corporate events.

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Like Taleo, Pinchin West tests its cultural progress. Holland has been administering the Great Places To Work culture questionnaire to employees for the past three years. The program publishes a list of the Best Workplaces in Canada every year, for both medium and large multinational businesses. (Last year’s winner was Google in the large and multinational category and Whitby, Ont., firm 360 Incentives in the medium group).

“We haven’t made the top 50 yet,” Holland says, “but we’re working on it.”


How have you maintained your early corporate culture as your company has grown? Share your strategies and experiences using the comments section below.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com