Every small business wants to be the next Amazon—or the next Apple or Google. Their products and services, as well as their growth and profit margins, are the envy of all. But it is their company cultures that drive their success. After all, without the brain trust and boots on the ground, those enterprises would have remained small and insignificant. Now, everybody wants to work for them. Why?
Their trendy work campuses capture headlines and imaginations, but location and environment are just veneers for the culture they contain. Yet, these headquarters are also extensions of brand. From Apple’s “spaceship” park to Amazon’s geodesic Spheres and Google’s playful Silicon Valley campus, the looks of these businesses reflect brands driven first and foremost by people-centric cultures.
It may seem skewed in priority to place workers before the actual work being done. But if we want to benefit from the lessons of these top organizations, we will focus on culture the way they do. As global competition for talent increases, this is the formula that works.
You can begin to build a better talent infrastructure by working on the seven “pillars” of good culture I’ve identified through researching leading companies. These include how organizations handle transparency, positivity, measurement, acknowledgment, uniqueness, listening, and mistakes. The examples of Amazon and friends, however, are worth studying in more detail. A few key techniques and best practices that these three amigos share warrant special consideration.
Transparency Is Clarity
The design of Amazon’s Spheres addition to its Seattle workplace campus is meant to inject nature into the business environment. But the glass-and-steel structure also embodies the company’s commitment to transparency. Three linked geodesic domes leave precious little in the dark—which is also the way to enable employees to do their best work.
Amazon, Apple, and Google use transparency in two major ways. First, they attract talent that aligns with their stated mission and values. They make these goals and guiding lights clear to all job candidates, weeding out of contention folks who won’t row with the crew. This creates a cohesive workforce that is dedicated to being part of the brand.
This both reveals and capitalizes on the companies’ uniqueness. They all stand out from the crowd. One way that our businesses can do this is to concentrate on hiring for a fit with our core values and a prevailing attitude. Using personality tests to assess potential hires for their inclinations and motivations can help standardize an otherwise subjective practice and get the right people in the right seats.
Second, these companies use technology to employees’ advantage. Access to relevant and accurate information is critical to their job roles, and these high-tech firms know how to centralize data. Amazon even launched a business service called the Transparency Program, which helps brand owners thwart counterfeiting and intellectual property theft.
But the retailer’s greatest wielding of transparency is most visible in its delivery services. Moving vast volumes of merchandise to their destinations requires an intricate web of logistics. Small businesses can imitate that command of information-sharing by giving workers open access to the details they need and the people in the company who can best assist them.
Positivity Is Power
One look at Apple’s massive, ring-shaped Campus 2 tells you how strong the tech giant really is. More than a mile in circumference, the structure’s powerful curved lines reveal something about the company’s working ethos. And any enterprise dependent on innovation would be wise to adopt the Apple staff’s positive mindset.
Because the business world is dynamic and markets fluctuate, many organizations find themselves reacting to problems and challenges rather than proactively getting out in front of them. That’s only a recipe for more of the same. Top companies like Apple and Google employ a positive approach to planning, pursuing goals, and solving problems called appreciative inquiry.
This model optimizes a team’s strengths while ferreting out less successful strategies that can tank morale. Appreciative inquiry adds a methodical element to what might otherwise be chaotic, and a means to innovate that could easily be squelched by negativity or repeated failure. It gives workers a sense of accomplishment, even when actual gains may be small.
The central technique involves four stages: discovery, dreaming, design, and destiny. This 4-D Cycle prompts teams to discover what is working for them, so they can preserve and expand upon it. Next, they dream big and imagine their ideal outcome. From there, they select a likely path and design systems or steps to move them forward. Finally, they do what it takes to achieve that destiny.
Becoming agile in this approach gives small businesses a way to break the cycle of putting out fires and watching morale sink. It sets a positive tone that can be echoed in every other area of planning and workflow. And it’s self-perpetuating: one accomplishment prepares the team for its next success.
Numbers Instill Confidence
Visiting Google’s eclectic California headquarters may seem like downing one gigantic energy drink, with something impish rushing around every corner. From fleets of brightly colored communal bicycles to a statue park of oversized sweets named after the company’s android inventions, the vibe is Google’s brand—and the brand is utterly self-confident. Here is a business that knows exactly who it is and why it exists.
This sense of definition extends to its talent. Most small businesses have only fuzzy outlines to their image. That’s because most of us allow culture to form rather than intentionally building it. Job candidates can sense this, and they will be drawn first to companies with strong, distinct personalities. Google, and other companies that cultivate the cultures they want, enjoy attention from people who want that too.
This begins with articulating a mission and vision that inspire. It continues through identifying the best-performing employees and attempting to attract more like them. Google does this via data collection and analysis. Having created the foundation, they could take a deep dive into assessing which parts of culture work best and why.
With a legion of employees, Google was able to conduct a two-year study with a decent sample size that showed them which psychological conditions are likely to coalesce with the company’s mission and values—not just to create a happy workplace, but to create the best support system possible in which to perform work. This is the essence of culture at its best.
Google’s study found that successful outcomes correlated to the satisfaction of certain human needs, foremost of which was psychological safety. Workers needed to feel confident in taking risks, free of judgment or possible sanction. This let them stretch and sometimes fail—but ultimately innovate. From this confidence stemmed other areas of fulfillment, such as being able to depend on coworkers and to clearly understand the company’s expectations of them, which also helped teams achieve their goals.
Revealing these key conditions and the high performance that resulted from them allowed Google to continue to monitor variables and outcomes for further insights. The numbers instilled confidence in how the company manages its culture, which in turn lets it promote those traits when recruiting talent. Along with Apple and Amazon, Google leaders have embraced culture as a way to draw the best people—and they never let their employees forget who it is that makes those organizations successful.