We all hopped on the Zoom celebration as a team. All in different locations. All were wearing our newly minted company swag. Hats, shirts, even some confetti and “We’re #1” foam fingers. 

I watched as the names were read off. “At #52, this company offers foosball, beer kegs, and lattes,” the emcee proudly announced. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not us, at least we weren’t last.

It was not clear to me when we submitted our entry in the fall of 2019 and how many participants there would be or how we would rank. I knew our culture was special, but assumed that everyone else thought the same about their own company, too. So, when we were notified in early 2020 that we had been selected as a finalist, I was excited. Really excited.

To hear there were fifty-two “finalists” gave me pause. The emcee started at the top and counted down. 

When he named us as the fourth “Best Place to Work in Indiana,” I was thrilled. As a start-up, merely four years old, it was an honor to be counted among the very best places to work. So, what set us apart? How did we become one of the best places to work? It’s called Culture, a word that is used increasingly to define the work environment. Let me share the four pillars for a winning workplace culture, based on our experience.

Pillar 1: Created By the Team, Not For Them

We set out to broadly define who we are as a company, and what we stand for. Leadership comes from the top, but the creation of a company culture must come from all. Mandating a culture and expecting buy-in is a recipe for disaster. I worked at a previous company where the founder determined the culture, talked about its importance, wrote it on the walls, and never got buy-in from his teams. At Invesque, we created the culture collectively, and we stand by it every day, valuing the input from every individual.

Pillar 2: Clearly Articulate — No One Should be Left Guessing

It starts with key words, or what I call anchors. What do anchor’s do? They keep the ship in place and avoid drifting. 

These anchors are words that describe critical elements of the culture. For us, these anchors are Teamwork, Family, Excellence, Positive Energy, and Fun. But words just create a framework. Culture is defined by examples and stories. Any thriving culture should be easy to explain and describe. When everyone has bought into the elements of culture, it should become second nature to explain. It’s like when you ask someone to talk about their best friends. I would never expect to hear an answer like, “I’m not sure, it’s hard to define who my best friends are.”

Pillar 3: Core To Your Business, Not an Afterthought 

We lead with who we are, as defined by our culture. For example, in every company meeting, I remind the team how important each person is to its overall success. I highlight the specific contributions of many. I focus on our teamwork and usually weave in examples of positive energy and fun that I have observed while leading the company. At times, I’ve had to highlight where we haven’t lived up to our cultural convictions and identify opportunities to improve — that illustrates our culture’s best. I also weave these cultural themes in communication with the board, shareholders, and other stakeholders. Because of our cultural standards, everyone we touch knows who we are and what’s important to us.

Pillar 4: Not Just Words, But Behavior 

Culture, at its core, must be defined by how we behave and perform. As we talk about family, for example, we give our employees flexibility to work where they want and when they want. We have an “unlimited vacation” policy. As we think about fun, we keep the mood light, even in difficult times. We frame the dialogue in a way that finds a way to have fun. This was highlighted when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. As a team, we created events and activities to perpetuate the fun part of our culture. One person started a weekly Zoom exercise class for the company. Someone else started a monthly book club. Another person set up a Zoom wine tasting. And yet another spearheaded a company newsletter showcasing what people did with their families, pets, and leisure time. What was most interesting about culture during this time is that each of these initiatives came from someone different in the organization. The result? We rose to #4 in four years! 

We did it by building the culture from the ground up and building on a solid foundation. A positive culture is a powerful tool for the long-term success of any organization. Building it for the long-haul and using it to navigate challenging times is what makes it powerful. It’s what defines the best companies and attracts and retains the best talent. As we look to the future of work, culture will increasingly be a defining characteristic that distinguishes the best of the best.