When It Comes to Company Culture, Sometimes CEOs Should Just Get Out of the Way

A candidate for one of our jobs recently commented that he loved the company culture at Matrix Group. To be honest, I was initially suspicious. What could he possibly glean about our company culture through one interview and one tour of the office? But I was also curious since recruiting top talent is an imperative for us. So I asked the candidate what he meant by his comment and what he found appealing about the company. He said something along the lines of: Your front office person is friendly and helpful, setting up the interview was painless, the people he met with were relaxed and confident, people were smiling all over the office, and there are toys everywhere, Matrix Group must be a fun place.

A friend and fellow CEO congratulated me on my strong corporate culture but I wonder how much of it can really be attributed to me. The more I got to thinking, the more I realized that sometimes, CEOs should set goals and parameters and then get the heck out of the way.

Here’s a small example. When I first started Matrix Group, we couldn’t afford fancy furniture (we still don’t have fancy furniture). Our Realtor told me about a company that let every employee paint one wall whatever color they wanted. I loved the idea and shared it at staff meeting. The staff loved it and it became so. Matrix Group paid for the paint and each staff person painted his or her own wall. A friend asked me what I would do if a staff person picked an ugly color or I didn’t like the color. My response was, “you can’t tell your staff that they can paint one wall whatever color they want and then decide that colors have to be approved by you.” And you know what? We had some crazy colors in our office and they all looked great. We had bright orange, spiderman blue, pink and green stripes, even chalkboard paint. It was fabulous.

Here are my never before published guidelines for nurturing a strong corporate culture:

  • Don’t have too many rules. Talented people feel confined by too many rules. Besides, it’s hard to remember lots of rules and it’s no fun. Every year, we have a staff member who asks for a bunch of time off, at the last minute. And every year, a manager says we should have rules about how much time you can take off at once, and how much notice you need to give. And every year, I caution managers that these types of rules tie managers’ hands too much, they’re not that useful and you’ll break them next week. What if one of your top developer’s best friend decides to get married in Vietnam at the last minute and he wants to go? Don’t you want to let him go? If you have too many rules, you can’t let him. But if you say to your dev, “yes, you can go, it’s last minute, so let’s figure out what you need to do ahead of time,” your super talented dev stays happy and you’re a hero.
  • You can’t mandate fun but you can certainly allow it and you should participate (sometimes). About a year ago, someone brought a Razor scooter to the office; he used it to get around the office quickly and he told everyone that he didn’t mind if other people used it. I didn’t say anything. I just let it be. I smiled when someone whizzed by me on the scooter. Soon, another Razor showed up and now the two scooters are community property and THE way to get around the office. Same with the fish tanks, the community puzzles, the chess games, and the Nerf guns. There was no social committee that decided on the toys and the games , they just showed up, and I never said NO.
  • You need to set parameters. Is it all fun and games at Matrix Group? Absolutely not. In fact, the opposite is true. You need to be at your morning stand-up meeting and you need to be on time. You need to meet your deadlines. You need to track your time. You need manager’s approval to work from home. Yada, yada. Managers have been known to put the kabosh on a particularly loud Nerf war or Lego construction that seemed ill-timed.
  • Encourage activities that align with your company values. My staff will tell you that I think companies can and should do more to encourage staff health and wellness. So in this area, I’m very active. When we were looking for office space, we chose one that gave us access to a fitness center and shower. We’ve brought in speakers on diet and exercise. We’ve sponsored flu clinics. And we encourage staff to participate in various runs and walks and we pay for the shirts. In this area, I’m either making suggestions or encouraging more activity.
  • Run a good staff meeting. It’s easy to make fun of meetings, especially staff meetings. But a good staff meeting makes people feel like they know what’s going on at the company, and it makes them feel connected with each other and the company. We have staff meetings every two weeks. We talk about wins, losses, launches, new techniques and technologies, and upcoming events.
  • There is no such thing as over-communication. As Matrix Group has grown, it’s impossible for all of us to know about everything going on or be part of every discussion and decision. So I’ve mandated that the company calendar be kept up to date, managers and I share what we know at status and staff meetings, we have a “when in doubt, communicate” policy, and we probably use e-mail a little too much to keep everyone in the loop.

While I can’t take credit for the wonderful, warm and engaging corporate culture at Matrix Group, I have learned that you need to be intentional about company culture and there are many things we CEOs can do to nurture and guide it. As my coach Peter Schwartz says, “CEOs get the organizations they deserve.

How about you? Does your organization have a strong corporate culture? What are you doing to nurture a good corporate culture? What’s working?

A couple of years ago, Maki started climbing the stairs from the ground floor to our 12th floor office. Others started joining him. Now there’s a group that climbs the stairs once or twice a day in the afternoons. Then the funny signs showed up.

There are toys everywhere in the Matrix Group office. Here is Front-End Developer Adrian Turner with his football toys. You’ll find toys on every desk, bookshelf, conference room and the kitchen!

8 thoughts on “When It Comes to Company Culture, Sometimes CEOs Should Just Get Out of the Way

  1. I had essentially the same experience as the job candidate you mention in the first paragraph. I went from a nervous wreck who couldn’t remember her interviewer’s last name to a person who convinced a team that she’d be a good intern. That couldn’t have happened in a place with a drastically different culture.

  2. Wonderful post, JP. So true as well. I remember when I came into interview over three years ago and the positive vibe that I felt upon walking through the doors. Thx for sharing!

  3. The Matrix corporate culture is one of our strongest recruiting tools. Job candidates who investigate our website see our Flickr stream which shows people doing fun and interesting things. When they come into the office for an interview they see the toys, scooters, pinball machine, etc. which reinforces this idea and helps put them at ease. This can result in candidates getting really excited about working for you before the interview itself even begins.

    The culture is great for retention too. Once you get used to going around barefoot shooting coworkers with nerf guns it’s tough to go back to a traditional environment.

  4. Joanna, your headline is provocative, and I hope it leads to this post going at least viral-ish. It’s a true contribution; it very well describes the touch and feel of the Matrix Group culture, and it deserves a wide audience.

    I know you’re humble by nature, and to say about yourself that you get out of the way may be true – but simplistic. Excuse the awkwardness of this statement, but it is who you are *being,* Joanna that sets the tone and the culture of your company. Who everyone else is being is their personal interpretation of that. And I’ve seen employees grow and mature outside of work as a result of their experience in a culture such as yours.

    Your guidelines reflect a great place to work. Most everyone would love to work in that kind of world. I think you’ll agree that an organization’s culture is a reflection of its leader’s way of being and acting. As my wise friend, Ken Schatz, once wrote, “you can never not lead.”

    Before a candidate joins a new company, find a way to learn a lot about the person at the top.

  5. Pingback: Are You Blocking The Way? | @tomcuthbert

  6. Thanks a lot for spending time to write “When It Comes to Company Culture, Sometimes CEOs Should Just Get Out
    of the Way | The MatriX Files”. Thank you once again, Susana

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