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As a consultant and coach, I have experienced a lot of company cultures over the years both good and bad. The worst are the companies where you can't figure out what their culture really is, you walk away a bit confused wondering what gets employees excited to come to work everyday.

Yet I realize that as individuals we all have different preferences and what is exciting to me may be disquieting to others especially when the culture is a very strong one. And with the current war for talent, being clear on your culture and how it can help to attract and retain talent is critical.

I recently met with the founding executive team of Kabbage Inc, Rob Frohwein, Kathryn Petralia, and Marc Gorlin to learn more about their company culture and how they ensure it remains on a steady course during their time of rapid growth. Because Kabbage's business model relies heavily on technology; great young talent is key to continued growth and success. They were very proud that their retention rate was very high and understood that because the majority of their employees were Gen Ys, the culture needed to compliment the needs of their employees.

Culture Starts at the Top

The three founders all agreed that culture starts at the top of any organization and that it needs to be one that aligns with who they are. In the beginning the culture really evolved based on their desires to have a fun yet productive place to work. When there were just a handful of employees the founders would stock up on favorite snack foods and drinks for themselves to keep the momentum going during long work days. They all appreciate jokes and spend a lot of time laughing and enjoying each other.

Maintaining a Strong Culture

Lesson 1: Culture can't be contrived. It needs to align with those at the top.

You can feel a strong culture when you walk into the offices of Kabbage, with the majority of employees being in their 20s and early 30s the dress is very casual with jeans and t shirts being the standard attire. The workspace is open and even the three founders work in open space. When you needed space for meetings or private discussions rooms are available.

Remember those snacks and drinks? The variety has expanded as employees have requested new items. The leaders listen to employees and accommodate for individual preferences. The biggest surprise to me was the wine cooler and chilled beer keg that is available to all at all hours. What was the logic behind this I wondered? Simple, where do Gen Y's go after 5? They go to the local bar; so why not bring the bar to them and then they will be more likely to continue working.

Lesson 2: Understand what your employees want

The team at Kabbage understands their employee's needs and habits including the language they use which often includes profanity. Knowing this they include the question "What is your favorite swear word?" in interviews to see how potential employees react to the question. All three founders interview each potential employee more to understand who they are and how they will fit into the culture. And they do it with finesse. One individual they offered a job to turned them down because of he had difficulty with accepting opposing views and felt he would not fit in with the company culture. That is success; a potential employee didn't make the mistake of joining a company that was a mismatch for him.

Lesson 3: Develop an interview process that uncovers the values of the applicant

Because culture is important, the leadership team has incorporated fun into every part of the organization. Being a data and technology driven company one very important policy is that when you leave your computer that you make sure it is locked for any prying eyes. The consequences for leaving your computer unlocked? Well you will find yourself on a scavenger hunt to find your hidden computer. This actually happened to a high level executive in the company during his first week, no one is immune!

Lesson 4: Incorporate culture into your policies and procedures

Remember that your company's culture is about you and your values. And once the culture is in place the talent that joins the team needs to align with your culture. Otherwise you may wake up one day and not recognize your company and it will be you not those working for you that doesn't "fit".

Contributed by David Friedman, author of Fundamentally Different


Larry Hart

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