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Culture Cure

I want to use my off day to help more companies build great cultures. Here's how.
Published onNov 04, 2023
Culture Cure

I'm gonna do an out-of-character experiment and post a really bold ask on a social network: does anyone want to hire me to, for lack of a better word, organize their company culture?

No, I'm not leaving my awesome job — in fact, I'll be hiring soon for a few roles I'm excited to share. But we work 4-day workweeks, and I'd like to try spending a few of those extra days doing more of what I love: helping people build sustainable, healthy, ultra-productive work environments rooted in a sense of shared purpose and strong core values. (Also, transparently, it’ll help me with my job to get a little extra practice).

What I have in mind is pretty simple. Over a few sessions, I'll work with you to do what I've done at several different companies: produce a handbook that includes a mission, values, goals framework, decision-making framework, communication framework, productivity tool suite, meetings framework, management and performance expectations, hiring and promotion policies, structural justice policies, benefits and leave policies, code of conduct, employee satisfaction surveys, and more, all rooted in the purpose of the work you're doing and the values of the team you're building. Then, every few months, I’ll check in with you to see how it’s going and recommend adjustments based on what you learn. Here’s our constantly-updated Handbook at Knowledge Futures, as an example.

Of course, the product of this work won’t actually be the handbook (although it is really important to have). The product is the process of making the key decisions about why and how you're going to work and aligning your company around those decisions. Too often, I've seen companies — even large, successful ones — never do this work, merely gesture at it, or, worst of all, copy and paste it from elsewhere. The result is something we've all experienced in our careers: drag. Disengaged employees, ineffective meetings, awkward conversations, difficulty hiring, and vibes that just aren't right — the conditions that stop even very promising companies from executing.

In the past, companies could still succeed by using cheap money to paper over these problems. They could always raise funds to hire more people, train managers to be pseudo-therapists, implement expensive productivity tools, throw perks at employees, bring in consultants to fill in the gaps, HAPPY HOUR!!!, etc. Now that the money spigot is running low, though, I'm having a lot of conversations with folks who are acknowledging that without those crutches, they don't have a productive culture to fall back on, and they're struggling more than they thought they would to make the new math work.

Even several of the FAANGS, or whatever we're calling them now, are realizing that their vaunted culture wasn't actually deeply effective. In reality, they just had high enough margins to support an endless stream of hiring, perks, and PR. And those companies are still making enormous margins. For everyone else to survive in the new environment, they're going to need to focus on building much more productive workplaces.

Transparently, no series of sessions, no handbook, no matter how great, is going to solve all of those problems for you. The key people at your company have to want to do the work to begin with, and they have to be willing to return to it over and over, because it’s not something you can set and forget. And I'd be lying if I told you that any culture I've helped build is perfect — some have been exceptional, some just okay. What I can tell you is that, in my experience, getting the key people at your company to make decisions about why and how you want to work, and committing to those decisions by writing them down and making them official policy, sets in motion a process that leads to less drag and more productivity.

Why? For most companies, simply because the answers to the basic questions every employee has about why they're showing up to work every day and how they’re expected to get things done aren't ambiguous anymore. Your people can stop awkwardly guessing what to do, stop worrying about whether they made the right call, and focus more on their actual work.

That's the baseline, and it's incredibly valuable. But when companies fully invest in effective culture, what happens is even more extraordinary. Suddenly, culture itself becomes a self-perpetuating efficiency engine. Employees start aligning their daily work against the company's mission, values, and goals. They learn to leave behind the noise and focus on what really matters. And, if you really succeed, they start feeling empowered to tell you what they need to be most effective, and even what they should be working on.

To a lot of leaders, including me at times, that kind of employee empowerment can feel like entitlement. This feeling comes from our experience at companies with lackluster cultures. At those companies, culture is a self-perpetuating efficiency-deflating machine. The rare employees who are willing to take risks and speak up are more likely to fail to understand what they truly need, because they have nothing guiding them. They just know something’s wrong and are brave enough to do something about it. And those are your most valuable employees! Everyone else is too afraid to do anything but plod along. Worse still, because there’s no written decision-making framework, and no actually practiced values to fall back on, leaders at these companies have no way to respond to those employees in productive ways. All they can do is ignore them, dismiss them, or send them to HR.

In companies with strong cultures, employees have a clear understanding of what their needs are, and know how and when to speak up when those needs aren’t being met. Leaders have clear methods of productively responding to employee ideas and requests, especially when they disagree.

Of course, for any of this to work, the company’s decisions have to be, well, good. Grounded in research, humanity, common sense, and the needs of the business. And that's why I'm here. I can help guide you and speed up the process because I've done it several times. I've done all the research, made all the mistakes in real life, and know what's important and what's not.

Okay, so that’s basically what I want to do, and why. In truth, I really don’t know if this is something people want. Also, I want to acknowledge that I’ve seen a lot of companies do this way better than me, and more still that do a lot of these things right but haven’t quite figured out how to tie it all together. If you’ve done a lot of this work already, but you’re still feeling a little drag, that’s fine, too. We can build on what you’ve already built.

All that said, I really only have time for one company right now, and I also know my sweet spot to test this out, which is going to be a hybrid or remote company, between 5-50 employees, probably in tech, media, or e-commerce. I’ve done venture-funded, bootstrapped, and non-profit.

Oh, but one thing you should know: I’m going to charge you less than what I think it’s worth, but more than what you’re probably comfortable with. Of course, if you’re not satisfied, I’ll make it right. But I’m pretty confident it’s going to pay for itself almost immediately. How? I’m glad you asked:

  • You’ll cut hours of weekly meetings that you thought were absolutely necessary but that you were actually using to continually re-align your leadership and employees against your unspoken mission/values/goals in the least efficient way possible. This alone will likely pay for our work together several times over in like a month.

  • As a result, you’ll stop paying for useless “productivity” tools that you only needed because you were spending too much time in meetings. This alone will likely pay for our work together several times over in a year or two.

  • Your employees will stop spending hours every week asking themselves and their managers whether they should be doing things and spend that time focusing on their most important work instead.

  • As a result, your leaders will stop spending most of their spending time managing “crises” that are actually caused by a lack of policy and start spending most of their time meeting their goals.

  • You’ll spend much less time recruiting because candidates will read your handbook like the breath of fresh air that it is and desperately want to work for you.

  • As a result, honestly, you’ll spend much more time wading through way more candidates for every job — but because you have an actual hiring policy and process rooted in your values, you’ll hire much more effective people who will stay around longer.

  • You’ll spend much less time onboarding new hires because they’ll already have more or less memorized your handbook.

  • There’s no “as a result” to this, it’s just really awesome to speed up what is often a really awkward and tedious process.

  • If you’re really dedicated, and a bit lucky, your employees will literally start telling you how they should and shouldn’t be working and what they should and shouldn’t be working on — and be right. If you listen to them, and you keep coming back to this work and implementing improvements, your culture will start to become a productivity-enhancing flywheel for your company.

Or at least, those have been the results for us at Knowledge Futures and other places I’ve worked. And I want to see if I can do the same for you.

So anyhow, if you think this is ridiculous, feel free to leave a sarcastic comment. Otherwise, if you’re interested or have questions, comment, DM or email me (gs at gabestein dot com) and let’s chat!

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