Company Culture, Transparency, Retention, and Happiness, Oh My.


group of employees enjoying an all company meeting

If I had a dollar for every article, blog or book I have read about “company culture” over the course of my career, I would be well on my way to a comfortable retirement by now. There are so many opinions about what “company culture” means and how it develops. Some believe culture is driven by those you hire. Others say culture exists around the mission and vision of a company. Still, others define company culture as the behaviors of those in an organization and the meaning attached to those behaviors.

Just for fun, I took a look at this from a scientific angle. It is my humble opinion that the biological definition of culture comes the closest to actually defining company culture, albeit metaphorically.

Culture: “The cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc., in an artificial medium containing nutrients…cells proliferate readily in culture.”

You see, it starts with the beginning. It starts with a vision, be it in a petri dish or on the back of a napkin. While the visionary may not be exactly sure what it could become, they choose the right environment for the culture to grow and thrive in a healthy way. It is nurtured with care and attention and it grows and develops into the culture that aligns with the deepest values and beliefs of the visionary.

The people you bring into your organization do not create the culture, they enhance the culture. People can also destroy a culture, and this can happen very fast. A word of advice: don’t invite people into your organization who are not blatantly obvious in their alignment with your vision for your organizational culture.

Okay, enough with the biology lesson. Assuming you have been successful in establishing the company culture you envisioned, how then do you nurture and grow it so anyone that joins your organization can see it, feel it and support it right away?

Start with transparency.

Transparency is not a destination; it is a commitment to sharing information as an organization. Transparency is not sharing ALL information ALL of the time – it is an intentional approach to empowering your employees with the information they need to be successful. Providing your employees with the right details behind the health and direction of the company helps them to understand how what they do every day helps the company to achieve goals.

Transparency is openness which leads to trust. Trust is number one. Without trust, there are not enough cool office gadgets, games, collaboration stations, free food, flex schedules, standing desks or beer Fridays that will serve as the finger in the dam of a crumbling culture. You cannot make people trust you. Oh, and bad news, you can’t buy it either. You earn it and that takes effort.

Google does it well. By valuing an open and transparent company culture, Google teaches its employees that it believes them to be trustworthy and have good judgment. That, in turn, empowers them.

At Element Three, I have found that folks I interview are taken aback when I jump right into the 25 reasons why they might NOT want to work here. I put all my cards on the table right up front, including the “oh so uncomfortable” compensation conversation. I figure if I can fail fast, we all win so why not show them what we are about, warts and all. In a word, it’s like going on a first date without wearing makeup. Yikes.

Next step, spend some “unscripted” time with us. I don’t create candidate “experiences”…what a load of crap. Orchestrating the experience is equivalent to photoshopping your picture on an online dating site. We have candidates come in and hang out with us regardless of what we have going on. Might be the busiest day of the year – chaos. Might be the most boring day of the year – snore. Who cares? This is us.

We don’t dress fancy, we talk smack with each other a lot and we don’t chastise you if your kid missed the bus and you had to take them to school and you came in late. Let your candidate hang out and ask any question they want to of any employee. Give your employees permission to be brutally honest about what they love and hate about working at your company. This approach results in the candidate also being relaxed and real, resulting in reciprocal transparency.

Now you got ‘em. How do you keep ‘em?

While recruitment is an important piece of the puzzle, retention is key. Finding top talent is tough but it can be done. Retaining key talent is work – unless you make it easy. How do you make it easy? You make it obvious.


Here is an example: Element Three has a culture that has grown from the fundamental belief that our President holds. Tiffany Sauder believes her company is here to grow people, she does not believe in using people to grow the company. If you do the first, the business will grow naturally.

So, how do you “grow” people? So many ways. Some companies think growing people means training. Nope – boring. Growing people should mean growing the whole person. Development means paying attention to the full spectrum, from the fundamental very personal development areas all the way to advanced skill development. We believe the very personal development is the foundation. If a person is not fundamentally secure (harken back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – this is not my own original thought by a long stretch), self-actualization will never happen.

In our industry for example, I have found that if you can take away most of the basic stressors such as pantyhose, uncomfortable shoes, perfectly coiffed hair, clock in and clock out times and crap tons of metrics that don’t really mean a thing (just to name a few), you start to support the physiological needs. Then add in the small things like interesting work, unlimited coffee, and snacks, flexible hours, a laid back comfortable place to work, self-directed work teams, free lunch now and then and continuous celebration around important life events. This does not need to be fancy stuff. It is not the foosball table that will lock people in. It is what happens around the foosball table that makes people want to come to work every day and do their very best.

This ain’t rocket science. Just be nice to people and let them do their thing in their own way. If you hired the right people, they will deliver even if you happen to walk by when they are lying face down on a giant teddy bear under the table in the middle of the office while they are doing it. I promise – they are ideating toward the perfect answer. Leave them be.

Now here is the secret sauce that we all know about but few execute effectively. Encourage happiness. Laugh a lot, all of the time. WITH people, not AT people, unless you are laughing at yourself.

There are so many reasons why laughter is crucial to a healthy culture. You get a lot more productivity, especially in a creative environment like ours, when people are happy. Smiling is good for your face and laughing is good for your health. Happy people have the guts to show up in the office on Halloween wearing a pink princess dress and a big blonde wig when your real name is Calvin. Happy people may not get all of their work done between the hours of 8-5 but by God, they always deliver on time and it is awesome.

How does all of this tie together?

A culture of transparency builds trust and when employees trust in the company they are empowered to support the positive culture and hang around because they are happy. It may not be rocket science, but it is a science.

You cannot fake a good culture. Smart people see right through it, and that is the point where it all falls apart. How happy are your employees?

Karen Seketa has been matching people to positions for years, and she's the one who finds all the superstars that populate the Element Three family. She's been here almost since the beginning, and if you ask her, she'll tell you it was the best decision she ever made.

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