Every business thinks they put their people first, but do they?  Jeff Barrett is CEO of Barrett Digital and writes or Inc.  You start a business with an idea, a product or a service. But you can’t grow it without people. Creating a great culture–that puts people first and gives them opportunities–is paramount.

What 1981 can teach you about 2017

And this isn’t a new idea. I was watching the documentary Silicon Cowboys on Netflix last week, the story of how three guys from Houston created Compaq in 1981. Their small startup went head-to-head with IBM and by the end of the decade was the fastest-growing multi-billion dollar company in history. It’s also the inspiration for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.

How did they do it? People. They empowered their employees. They gave everyone input. You could walk up and talk to the CEO any time, in fact it was encouraged. That didn’t last forever. Eventually Compaq grew to be too large. Their CEO and founder was removed in 1989 and they merged with HP in 2001.

But 35 years later, the original employees of Compaq all look back on that initial setup fondly.

It seems utopian to some extent. How can a big company, that has to meet the needs of shareholders, feel small and put people first? But today there are companies that are successfully applying that example and even a culture company that helps improve company culture. Say that fives time fast. No, seriously. I’ll wait.


It doesn’t hurt that their business is on the right side of retail. (Crate and Barrel recently announced the closing of their Magnificent Mile location in Chicago. It’s being replaced by the world’s largest Starbucks in 2019.)

Last year Wayfair’s net revenue was up 50 percent to $3.4 billion with a 54 percent increase in customers. But it’s their culture that encourages employee innovation that has also contributed to this success and helped them manage rapid growth.

“From day one, Wayfair has taken deliberate steps to create and maintain an entrepreneurial and collaborative culture. We specifically hire individuals who are willing to think outside of the box to solve problems and develop new initiatives, and we empower our employees to take measured risks to drive innovation,” said Kate Gulliver, Vice President of Talent Operations at Wayfair. “Our creative, collaborative and innovative culture is part of our DNA — it’s what continues to drive the business forward.”

That’s a company that puts employee and culture first. And at a time when Uber and seemingly every airline struggles with that, it’s a good reminder that an investment in people really does pay dividends.

Why does culture fail?

“Culture is failing because management science has been misconstrued to only apply to what is considered ‘hard and measurable,’ said Jason Korman, CEO Gapingvoid, a culture design company that works with Microsoft and more. “As my friend, Harvard Professor and former Co-Chairman of The Limited , Leonard Schlesinger, said to me recently, “soft is harder than it looks.” It’s a lot easier to redesign and measure the change on a new SOP, than it is to emotionally connect people to their work.”

And that’s true. We have all the data we could ever want. Data is great. But it’s how you use it that matters. If it’s used to try and extract the absolute most out of an employee or stress them to perform greater it will create a long-term negative. Even The Wolf of Wall Street knew that if you treat your employees well it will pay off in the long run.

Side note: Don’t do most of the things from The Wolf of Wall Street.


Their CEO, Satya Nadella, and his team, have done a remarkable job in transforming the culture over just three years. “He has done this by elevating employees. Honoring the belief that if you enable people to bring their best selves to work and caring more about customer, then better products will result,” said Korman. “This simple belief has transformed that business in a remarkably short time given the scale of the business.”

Change can be made and quickly at a large organization. Microsoft has become open, collaborative and seen partnerships with Salesforce and LinkedIn create new revenue models. Executives have even appeared at Apple events.

What things are hard to fix?

Not every culture is an easy fix. A lot of them aren’t speedboats, rather yachts that are hard to turn and change course.

“The harder things to fix are ingrained behaviors, especially among middle managers, where there is a lot of fear,” said Korman. “A lot of culture change is often focused on ‘operationalizing’. These changes rarely stick because you cannot operationalize beliefs before they actually exist in the hearts and minds of employees.”

How do you attract Millennials?

The issue isn’t really about attracting Millennials as much as keeping Millenials. “If the company doesn’t align to expectations, they’re out. If they don’t feel validated, they’re out,” said Korman. “We are living in a new age, where meaning and intent matters at work. At the same time, the world is transparent and so what happens inside a business really matters. Accordingly, you can create a fanciful employment brand, or buy your way onto one of the best places to work lists, but the world will know, and there is nothing you can really do but to make work better and more meaningful.”

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