10 Tactical Ways to Build a Company Culture Your Employees Love

HubSpotters Celebrating International Women’s Day (and a culture that celebrates and empowers women all year!)

At HubSpot, we are #blessed to have an award-winning culture, and along with those accolades come a lot of requests to “pick our team’s brain” on what we do and how. To be honest, our team may seem big to some, but we have big, ambitious goals, and we also want our People Ops team to have interesting and fulfilling lives outside of work, so I’m actively encouraging our team to say “no” to things so they can say “yes” to things that matter.

But in our hearts, we are inbound marketers, and we care deeply about sharing what we know — the good, the bad, and everything in between. So in one Medium post, here are my top ten tips, links, tricks, and books if you’re someone thinking about culture at your company. And naturally, if you’re someone who wants to join a company that cares deeply about this stuff, we’re hiring.

  1. Write it down: When you’re a small organization, everyone assumes they share the same views on culture. Fortunately, when you’re quite small, you can typically talk out those ideas in person, but most companies wait until something breaks to write down what their culture stands for. With that said, some people come to us asking if they should define their culture before they even reach product-market fit. Here’s my two cents on timing: your founding team early on should define what kind of company they wish to create. At HubSpot, Dharmesh and Brian made it really clear they wanted a culture focused on autonomy because they both cared deeply about creating a company where talented people could do big things. But we waited until we were six years into our HubSpot journey to launch our Culture Code (more on that later), so don’t feel like you have to create a deck in the first few months of doing business. Align with clarity on what you care about early so you can ensure your vision for the company matches with your early hires, then when you get to the point where you’re hiring a good number of people at once, that’s a good time to start thinking about how to codify your culture so your employees, hiring managers, and candidates know what you stand for and why. Many people ask me about the process they should follow for doing this — there isn’t a single recipe to make this work for your organization, but my best advice is not to wait around for perfection — ship what you have and iterate on it, just as you would do with your early products.
  2. Don’t hoard what makes your company special: When Dharmesh first announced that we would launch the Culture Code externally, many employees were concerned — what if someone took our “secret recipe” and copied it? What if our competitors ripped it off? The truth when it comes to culture is that success lies in execution, not strategy, just as with almost everything else in business, so worry less about someone copying your words and more about ensuring you live up to what you say on a regular basis. When we launched The Culture Code, we did so with the recognition that some of the things we said were aspirational — we weren’t quite where we aspired to be just yet, and said so. We embraced both who we were and what we wanted to be, and the act of making the Culture Code public did two critical things. First, it gave us focus. As a company, you always want to be all things to all people, but as you scale that’s just not realistic. Taking the time to define who we wanted to be and why aligned our internal team and gave us a shared language to discuss what we care about most in hiring, firing, and promoting people. Second, it gave candidates an in-depth view of what we are building and why. Tens of thousands of people have read it and applied to HubSpot, for which we are forever grateful. But I’m sure many people have read it and intentionally not applied — that’s actually a good thing to. Codifying what makes your culture tick is as important for the candidates you draw in as for those who self-select out of the process because of your articulation. When writing up your culture overview, don’t try to appeal to everyone. Instead, try to be clear, truthful, and intentional about who you are and what you want to be — doing so will help you build an authentic and transparent employment brand for your candidates long before they join your team.
  3. Make it clear early that culture additive people are far better than folks who “fit” a mold: One danger of having a strong culture is that it can be far too easy to perpetuate a culture of sameness, and to create an environment where culture “fit” is an excuse to hire people who look, think, act, and build products just like you do. The best people in any organization meaningfully add to your culture. They challenge the status quo. They ask hard questions on why, and as you scale they break down valuable internal perceptions on what’s working and what isn’t. At HubSpot, we waited too long to make this abundantly clear and part of our recruitment strategy. We are making up for that lost time now in releasing our diversity data and in our ongoing commitment to building a more diverse and inclusive company, but if there were one thing I know we’d do earlier in our company’s history, it would be to be more intentional internally and externally about how much we care about building a company we can be proud of for many generations — and that means attracting, retaining, and growing a diverse pool of talent as diverse as our customer base globally.
  4. Lean in to your culture during the times when it’s easiest to lean out: Your company values are easy to live when you’re hitting all of your numbers and growing like crazy. They are harder to live when you’re going through transitions (new office openings, restructuring of teams, letting go of a leader or leaders, an IPO), but those inflection points in your culture are the times when you need to lean in to culture the most. At HubSpot, we looked at a lot of data for companies post-IPO, and many of them saw a high percentage of employees leave after the offering, so we used the IPO not just as a financing event, but as a time to really engage with employees on what we were building and to ensure that we inspired managers globally with the vision that our journey was just getting started, not coming to a close. If you’re going through a turning point as an organization, you should have a financial plan, a communication plan, and a culture plan — how will you live and represent your values through this situation? How will you ensure your leaders convey clarity to their respective teams? If you can’t answer those questions, take the time to revisit — inflection points require careful attention to defining your culture and send a strong message to your employees about how much you care, so plan accordingly.
  5. Your offices and teams should be siblings, but not twins: At HubSpot, we have a really strong states’ rights culture. In other words, many teams have strong opinions about how their organizations should be run, and as part of our commitment to autonomy, that makes total sense and is something we actively encourage. Similarly, each of our seven (soon to be eight with the addition of Bogota, Colombia) offices has a unique culture of its own, and we actively encourage that — we want our offices to reflect the local flavor of the talent pools they draw from and the leaders who run them. However, you have to agree on what’s non-negotiable and have shared common goals and DNA throughout the org (hence the siblings analogy). To give an example, one of our longest serving slides in the Culture Code deck is “Solve for the Customer.” Specifically, we tell employees to solve for customer over company, company over team, and team over themselves. This organizing principle impacts big decisions we make as an organization, ranging from product launches to hiring plans, but our Culture Code gives us a common language to help debate and make the right decision based on what is right for our customers globally. The same is true if you work for a company with vastly different employee populations (manufacturing is a good example of this — folks who work in a plant typically have less workplace flexibility than folks who work in corporate) — it’s okay to have different team cultures, but you have to be united in your common goals and shared language.
  6. Sunlight is the best disinfectant: Let’s use the manufacturing example above. I can’t tell you how many founders come to me and say “our office in X place and office in Y place don’t get along at all” or “the folks who work in our plant and the folks who work in corporate have totally different cultures altogether, and I don’t know what to do about it.” My first question is always “have you talked to them about it?” and more often than not — the answer is no. At our most basic human level, speaking the truth about our differences can be hard, but talking about what’s working and what isn’t is an absolute imperative to getting culture right long-term. So if you’re an organization that has multiple factions within it — you’re not alone. But don’t assume that if you sweep their differences under the rug that harmony will soon emerge. At HubSpot, our expression to further transparency is “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” a quote borrowed from the illustrious Louis Brandeis. As a general rule, your culture can quickly become defined by the secrets you attempt to keep, and that’s not a good look for your business or your brand. Candidates and employees have access to more information than ever, so conversations that used to happen at a water cooler between three friends are now on Glassdoor for thousands of your candidates and employees to see. My advice: embrace transparency, even when it’s hard to do — you’ll be better off for it in the long run.
  7. Don’t Assume You Know What’s Working and What Isn’t: At HubSpot, we do a quarterly survey for our employees, details of which you can read about here. We release the data to the whole company, which is wildly unconventional but critical to our success. Why do we care so much? Well, no matter how much your executive team cares about culture (and we care a lot), you’re going to miss things that aren’t working, whether it’s on teams, in locations, and within subcultures of your organization. Last year, when HubSpot unified our product into a single Growth Stack, we energized our customer base but didn’t spend enough time getting the details of the unification right for our employees. Fortunately, our employee survey gave us a lot of candid feedback on what we did wrong and how we could fix it and we were able to remedy most of our employee concerns quite quickly. The second you assume you have it all figured out is the second you’ll miss big things that impact your employees and candidates, so we use everything we can possibly listen to, from our survey to Glassdoor to Comparably to InHerSight, to get information on what we can do better. To answer a question I get a lot, pick a vendor and timing that works for you and matches your values as an org, but never survey employees more frequently than you can act on their feedback — you should only ask for feedback that you’re willing, able, and interested in acting upon as a leadership team.
  8. Combat Nostalgia Creep: Sharing your company’s history and stories is a great way to share with people where you’ve been as an organization. However, nostalgia can be really dangerous as your organization scales — if veteran employees are so busy talking about where you’ve been you’ll never get to where you want to go. Our CEO, Brian Halligan, has a great expression for this — when people say “in the good old days of HubSpot,” he’ll nicely note “these are the good old days.” It’s a kind and compassionate way of making it clear to people that operating in the present is the best way to create the future we are building for our customers, our product and our team. If you notice employees, managers, and leaders talking negatively about the current work environment because they miss the old days, my best advice is to call it out. Sometimes it leads to great conversations on how they can bring back versions of traditions they really care about or projects they can take on that allow them to reconnect with things they love about the company. But if that doesn’t work, I recommend considering hard calls — no one wants to work for a manager or leader who thinks the best days of the company are behind them. So make sure you’re hiring and retaining people who love and appreciate your history but have a strong commitment to the future — people who are skeptical are great gifts to your organization, but people who are cynical can be toxic.
  9. Invest in your people managers: We waited far too long at HubSpot to invest significantly in our managers, and that was a mistake. Your managers are the daily face of your organization to front line employees, and have a massive impact on who you hire as a company, who you fire, who you promote, and how people learn to learn within your organization. If you’re like most companies with a strong culture, chances are you grow people from within. That’s fantastic, but going from being a world-class individual contributor to being a people manager requires a shift in time, energy, style, and interactions with your peers, so spending time helping to support your managers as they grow is imperative. You can do something as basic as joining forces with your legal team to talk compliance (most new managers don’t know what they can and can’t ask in interviews for example) to reading a book about management and creating a manager community to get started, but as you grow, don’t neglect your people managers. At HubSpot, we now have a whole team devoted to management and leadership development, but as you’re starting out, think and act small — just don’t leave your people managers behind as you grow.
  10. Humility is the most critical ingredient to any culture: The worst thing you can do with culture is to think you have it all figured out at any stage, so listen to your employees, assume your competitors are copying your every move, and adopt a healthy degree of paranoia about your culture. Ultimately, the reason our culture works at HubSpot is successful is because everyone, from our newest intern to our experienced managers to our People Ops team to our founders, cares so much about not just preserving it but making it better. Our learning and development and recruiting teams do amazing work finding and onboarding new employees, and yet, they are always looking for ways to improve and listen and grow, ranging from candidate surveys to panels with our leadership team to hiring manager feedback. That constant drive to improve and get better is ultimately one of the biggest keys to our company success, and what gets us out of bed every morning.

The truth is, there is no secret hack to building and scaling your company’s culture. Like so many things in leadership, it requires careful thought, consideration, and iteration. But what I can tell you is that building a company you love working at each day is worth every bit of blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen — in the war for talent, there’s no substitute for a meaningful mission and exceptional peers. In the end, the greatest perk by far is great problems to solve and remarkable people to tackle those challenges with — anything else is a distant third*.

If you’re looking for more on our culture, recruitment, and employment brand, below I’ve linked to some additional resources to check out from my amazing colleagues and some other folks I really admire in this space:

Chief People Officer at HubSpot. Proud graduate of Bates College, MIT Sloan, and Space Camp. On the interwebs @katieburkie

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