Beyond the beer fridge: 2 Colorado companies on creating a killer company culture

by Jess Ryan
February 9, 2016

Both within and outside the community, startups are often either lauded or mocked for their interpretations of company culture. For some people, “company culture” means foosball tables, monthly staff parties and fully-stocked fridges. But for most companies, it’s so much more than that. So what does company culture really mean? And how can startups create and improve it themselves?

Define your values

For Sarah Miller, Sr. Director of People & Culture at

We're located in the vibrant Cherry Creek north neighborhood in Denver.

, culture isn’t something companies can create. “Culture should be an articulation of what works, what doesn’t and what characteristics and values are shared amongst the group,” she said.

“Company culture, for me, is the combination of people and values in action,” said Ziola Saputo, Sr. Director of People Operations at

. “Each individual person comes with their own set of values. The key is to align the company with people who find similar things to be important.”

Saputo said leadership buy-in is essential to creating or improving company culture. “It’s important that your CEO or leadership team really has a deep-level discussion about what it is they value,” she said. “Whatever they come up with, which is unique to them, that becomes what you aspire to be.”

Havenly also turned to their leadership to define their culture. “We took input in the beginning of the process from everyone on the team, but ultimately it was defined by the founders,” said Miller. ”What they value, what excites them, how they work and what has made them successful — that was the major driver of our cultural value definition.”

Assemble a strong team

Once leadership has determined the company’s values, recruitment, hiring and training become key parts of the process. “If you want to create a consistent culture, you need to find people who match the values you aspire to,” Saputo said. “You have to dig in and ask good questions to find out what they really care about.”

Miller said it’s also important to have someone in charge of building and supporting your culture initiatives: “It was imperative for us that someone owned the process, kept pushing it forward and didn’t let it get stuck under the tons of other priorities that were in motion.”

Develop processes and practices

Saputo developed a culture-building model she calls “MAP,” or Model — Address — Promote. “The leadership has to be a living example of the culture you want to create,” she said. “It’s really important not to brush under the rug things that are uncomfortable or sensitive topics, you’ve got to address all of it head on.”

Finally, you need to promote culture initiatives through creating common language employees will begin to adopt and providing training, policies and resources. Once your team understands the value of culture? “This is where the magic happens,” Saputo said.

Team members will start heading up their own systems, putting aspects of culture into place within their own departments.

Miller follows a similar model, and the assessment part stands out as key. “The landscape can and probably will change dramatically each year,” she said, “and sometimes each quarter. What works at one time may not at another, and we’re comfortable addressing issues, having tough conversations and making changes.”

Put it into action

Saputo said at Kapost, employees put company culture into practice by bringing their own unique, positive gifts to the company. A number of groups have sprung up, including a soccer club and a knitting club. And Kapost’s support has allowed Saputo to plan some pretty impactful programming. “As a company, supporting each other personally is important, so I started a quarterly impact series,” she said. “We just had two Realtors and a mortgage person come speak about buying a house in this housing market. As a result, one of my coworkers has already bought a house using the advice he got, and two other coworkers I know are looking for houses and working with these agents.”

Company culture isn’t just about the good things, though. It’s also important to address the negatives. “I think Kapost as a team is unabashedly transparent with each other,” Saputo said. “When there’s a problem we don’t hide it from our employees, we address it.”

They even have a monthly “Ask Toby” session, where employees can chat with CEO Toby Murdock.

So when is culture building finished?

Never. Between recruitment, programming, process development, social activities and more, the key is not to be satisfied. “Talk about it all the time, create traditions and shared language, make it visual and build your community around those values,” said Miller.

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