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Coding CultureRamonna and I are flying back from Austin having just presented a session we called “Coding Culture: Programming a Best Place to Work” at SXSWi. As most of you know, we are passionate about promoting the concept of creating unique and bold corporate cultures that keep team members smiling (and not walking out the door), providing deliriously strong customer service and driving profitability to the bottom line. While we can’t share all of the war stories we were able to share with our session attendees, we wanted to share the top 15 tips we created in the spirit of spreading the concept of building a great workplace culture at SXSWi 2015.

As many of you know, in 2013 we were named the No. 1 best place to work in the country by Outside Magazine. We repeated the honor again last year, coming in at No. 4. We’ve also been recognized by The Denver Business Journal seven years in a row as one of the top five companies to work for in Denver. While we make no claims about being the experts on culture, over time we’ve found out what works for us, and we love sharing our good, our bad and our “are you kidding me?” stories with others across the country. As always, we love to hear from others, as well, about what makes their cultures unique, and we were excited to learn a few new tips during SXSWi. Please feel free to send us an email (pr at to share your best stories (or missteps) with us.

#1. Define your values: At GFM we managed to do this one a little backward (surprise!). We were living and breathing our values before we ever clearly identified them and took the time to write them down and share them with our entire team. Perhaps not ideal, but on the flip side, it took us about six seconds to come up with them because we were already living them. Make them simple. Make them authentic. Values should be something to guide you when you are stuck making a big decision. Run the choice in front of you through your value filter. You might be surprised how easy it is to make a decision when you are clear on your values. For GFM our values are Uncompromising Integrity, Passionate Collaboration and Mutual Respect. Our values are non negotiable, and we are willing to walk away from people and opportunities if they don’t align with our values. Most importantly, our team members are encouraged to make decisions without either one of us in the room because we hire people who emulate our values (see #3).

#2. It starts at the top: It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of a company or the manager of a department — if you don’t believe in building a strong culture, then no one will buy in. Why should they? If you work for a large company and a strong culture doesn’t start at the very top, you can still build a mini culture within your department or team. And other departments may notice and jump on your bandwagon. Sometimes the way you show up in your individual team will begin to trickle up and out into other parts of the company. It’s a powerful thing to watch when a small group of people begin to lead a culture movement.

#3. Hire for culture: I rarely look at someone’s resume. Granted, by the time I finally meet with him or her, the candidate is well vetted by other GFM team members to make sure she or he has the skill set we need. When you are meeting someone, do they look you in the eye? When you take them to a restaurant, do they treat the servers well? Things like that speak volumes about how he or she will treat your team members and/or customers, regardless of their position in a company. When I meet with a candidate, I rarely ask a standard work-related interview question. I want to know what drives that person. If they had six months to do anything in life and money wasn’t a concern, what would they do and why? If they were able to ask anyone to dinner, dead or alive, who would it be and what questions would they ask that person? If they won the lottery, what would they do? Last, but certainly not least, ask others (regardless of their level) in your company to weigh in on hiring. If there is a red flag, listen to their gut reaction. Trust your own instinct. Remember that your culture will NOT be for everyone. If it’s not, don’t make the hire. It will simply never work. Hire slowly, but fire quickly. Speaking of…

#4. Fire for culture: Nothing shows the rest of your team how much culture truly means to you as firing an A+ worker who simply doesn’t align with your company values. If there is a cultural cancer growing in your company, kill it. Even if the cancer shows up dressed like a rock star. There is simply no one too talented to fire.

#5. Reward for culture: Are your company values built into your review, annual raise, bonus and reward processes? If culture matters to you, then consider a peer review process where team members are given raises and promotions based on the people who work with them each and every day. Consider asking a culture-related question as part of your review process – things like, “If you were in a foxhole with someone in this company, who would you want with you and why?” or, “Tell me how this person emulates our values.” Feedback from peers about how they value each other – and how a team member shows up in the workplace – will speak volumes about having the right people on your bus. If they aren’t the right people, get them off the bus. Quickly. 

#6. Have a “no assh**e” policy: Is there a client that you are courting that would be great for your bottom line but is an absolute jerk to work with? Would he or she bring down the morale of the company? If so, don’t work with them. Make a client’s cultural fit a part of your filter when making a decision. Just how a bad co-worker can hurt your internal culture, a bad client can kill a team’s spirit. We have never shied away from releasing a client that was cruel, unreasonable or inappropriate with our team members. In a service-based business, our people are our products. It is much harder for us to replace an incredible team member than it is to generate new business with people who aren’t assholes. 

#7. Celebrate: It sounds so simple, but so many leaders fail to stop and simply celebrate. As odd as it may sound, you must celebrate success AND celebrate failures. Both matter to the growth of your business and of your people. Have you ever spontaneously ordered lunch or thrown a happy hour for everyone after losing a big account — simply to celebrate what you learned from the experience? Celebrate the good stuff too. Last, but not least, the celebration shouldn’t just come from the owners or managers, encourage co-workers celebrate one another – and give them a budget to do so.

#8. Dress your culture: What you wear – and allow others to wear – speaks volumes about your culture. At GFM, we have a “no daisy dukes or tube tops” policy, but beyond that, we trust that how our colleagues dress, respectfully of course, is a reflection of how comfortable they feel in our work environment. Of course, we respect clients’ cultures, too, and know that their environment may trump our own personal preference for meetings. Therefore, we adhere to their dress code when appropriate (although I am fairly confident that there are very few suits left in any of our closets). We encourage people to wear what will help them do their best work. We recognize that many companies can’t be as causal as we are, so we encourage others to find a way to work a comfortable dress code into their office life in a way that fits their culture. Jeans Friday, anyone (without having to pay to do it)?

#9. Get out and get active together: We are fortunate to live in an active state with a great climate, and we work with many health and wellness clients. Living a healthy lifestyle is very much ingrained in the way we show up and play together. We have trained for (and paid for) our team members to run (or waddle) half marathons together. We celebrated our elite marathoner as much as we encouraged our team member crossed the finish line in the sag wagon. Many of our team members rock climb or practice yoga and take fitness classes together. We converted a small conference room in to a small gym, complete with a treadmill “desk,” and we encourage walking meetings. Each year we also partner with Outward Bound Professional to create team-building experiences outdoors – from rock climbing and repelling to high ropes courses and crazy marble-moving contests.

#10. Remember what your mom told you in kindergarten: Be nice. Say please and thank you. Respect the world around you and the people in it. Don’t bash the competition. Don’t bash each other. How you speak about others inside and outside of your company is a reflection of how you treat others. Find something good about your perceived enemies. In fact, you never know when you might end up on the same side of the fence or you might need to refer customers to them.

#11. Make the Most of the Last Five Minutes: The little moments matter. Sometimes all it takes an extra five minutes to show people you sincerely care. If you are in tune with people on your team or in your company, you will be able to ask the questions that matter and let them know you care by simply giving them a little more of your time. Ask about what matters to them beyond the to do list. Did they go skiing over the weekend? Did they adopt the dog they had been trying to adopt? Did their spouse get the promotion he or she was waiting for? Know these things. Stop by someone’s desk. Leave a hand-written note and a small $5 gift certificate for a job well done. The gesture doesn’t have to be huge. But the impact often is.

#12. Rules Are For Preschoolers — be human and treat people like grownups: Trust me. I am not claiming that the handbook should be thrown out the door. It is smart to have one. It is simply a good business practice, and ours is extremely thick. But a culture begins where the handbook ends. Life is about exceptions. Treat people like people, not products. Is someone going through a nasty divorce? Having gone through this, I can guarantee with 100% certainty that one’s head is simply not in the game at times. So, give them a break. Don’t dock them for days (or partial days) they have to take off to deal with legal appointments and mediation. Let them focus on the things at the company that really matter for the next six weeks. Take them off anything that isn’t essential. Throw a “divorce shower” and restock his or her kitchen. The gratitude that he or she will feel from being treated like a human being will create loyalty that doesn’t have a dollar amount attached to it.

#13. Have unique benefits that really matter: Are there interesting benefits beyond the vacation policy and health insurance that will help prevent burnout and build your corporate culture? These are the perks that “best places to work” are known for. For example, some companies are switching to a no-trackedvacation policy, on-site childcare and free lunches every day. If you aren’t that company quite yet, consider some smaller perks. We have a paid sabbatical plan; a free bike sharing membership for our team members to use; onsite dry cleaning delivery and pick up; and an “active lifestyle allowance,” in which we allow each employee to expense up to $50 each month to cover wellness expenses such as gym memberships, fitness classes or the purchase of new bike; just to name a few. 

#14. Love Where You Live: Encourage a layout and design in your office that is reflective of a warm environment that fits your culture. Give team members small budgets to decorate their office to fit their lifestyle. If you work in cube-ville, create a space for collaboration that encourages creativity and socializing, regardless of how seemingly sterile the other offices are. If you don’t give people a space to gather, they won’t. We have a community table in the middle of the office, a Ms. Pac Man machine and a kegerator with locally brewed beer for employees to enjoy at any time. They gather. They collaborate. They socialize. Great ideas come from this type of open interaction.

#15. Embrace the Community: Nothing motivates team members who care about their community more than being rewarded for giving back. Since we started nearly 14 years ago, GFM has donated nearly 15% of our annual profits to the community – through cash contributions, pro bono marketing communications services, reduced billing rates and staff time to support community organizations. We also strongly encourage volunteer board and committee membership of each of our team members. In 2007, we created the GFM Get Grounded program, offering all team members the opportunity to actively participate in important social causes for their communities, either during our outside of work hours. GFM team members can choose to volunteer time through the donation of paid time off or to receive cash grants for nonprofits, schools or other Section 501(c)(3) organizations or projects for which they volunteer. GFM matches the hours volunteered outside of normal office hours by donating $10 per hour, up to $400 per calendar year, to the charities that employees volunteer their time for. This year, we’re officially launching our Get Grounded Foundation as the primary charitable giving arm of GFM. Our nonprofit 501(c)(3) will provide one-year grants of up to $2,500 for new or expanded innovative or entrepreneurial programs within an existing, qualified nonprofit that directly supports the healthy development of at-risk or neglected children under the age of 18 in the Denver Metro area.

Those are our “top 15.” But we wan to point out that while many people hear us talk about culture and only see are dollar signs, creating a great culture is not cost prohibitive. We definitely account for the cost of culture in our bottom line, but we realize that the cost of NOT focusing on our culture is far more detrimental to our bottom line. Our attrition rate hovers around 2% (compared to an industry average of more than 20%), and the cost of training new employees far outweighs the cost of keeping our rock star team members around — for us and our clients.

The bottom line is that life is too short to not work with people you enjoy, doing the kind of work that makes you happy, while making the world a better place.

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