Culture is something I’ve spent a lot of time learning about since thinkPARALLAX’s inception nearly 20 years ago. Through countless conversations with folks at various stages of their careers — from my teenager’s experiences working at a local pizza place to friends approaching retirement, as well as many chats with people working at thinkPARALLAX and those looking to transition into a purpose-driven career — company culture stood out as the constant for what makes or breaks an employee’s experience.
Defining a positive organizational culture isn’t as easy as recognizing the absence of one. From my many conversations, I learned that negative corporate cultures tend to be marked by a lack of trust, unclear or unreasonable expectations, poor communication, feeling unsafe, and various unfair activities keeping employees from feeling valued. One thing is for sure: it’s the responsibility of an organization's leaders to foster a positive culture.
As I reflect on how far thinkPARALLAX has come and how much further we have to go as we accelerate our purpose to inspire new perspectives on sustainable business transformation, I wanted to share some thoughts on how to create a positive culture for your organization.
1. Trust is an investment that pays organizational dividends
While many business leaders take the command-and-control approach to leadership, this doesn’t work in today’s ever-evolving competitive landscape. There is simply too much to know, and too little time to learn it all. To succeed, leaders must rely on the expertise and capabilities of those around us to get the job done.
Two years ago when I transitioned into the role of CEO of thinkPARALLAX, I learned quickly that there was no way I could succeed unless I invested my trust in the company’s leaders — who in turn would place trust in those they managed and led. We created a leadership team overseeing all of the organization’s critical functions — from accounts to strategy to operations, creative, and client engagement.
Delegating responsibility to my team, I became more of a coach — offering my support, providing guidance and feedback, and letting them learn from their mistakes while reveling in their victories. By investing my trust in the leadership team, they have been able to do what they do best without any restrictions. With room to grow, they have realized their full potential — and their success has translated to business success. Meanwhile, the trust I put in them has trickled down to everyone in the organization. When you trust your colleagues to have your back, it creates a virtuous cycle of personal and organizational growth.
2. Cultivating psychological safety empowers your people
Safety and trust go hand in hand. When people feel unsafe, they are less willing and able to do their best work. Earlier this year, we had renowned psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman speak with our team about “self-actualization in support of personal growth.”
According to Kaufman: “Life isn’t a trek up a summit. It’s more like a vast ocean, full of new opportunities for meaning and discovery but also danger and uncertainty… With holes in your boat, you can’t go anywhere. All of your energy and focus is directed toward increasing the stability of the boat. The human needs that comprise the boat are safety, connection, and self-esteem — security needs that, under good conditions, work together toward greater stability.”
Creating a culture of safety means that you embrace a growth mindset versus expecting perfection. When people know they can try and fail and learn and grow — versus being expected to meet unrealistic measures of perfection — they will achieve more than they otherwise ever could. Allow your people to disagree, speak freely, and collaborate to innovate. Safety first, as they say.
3. Vulnerability is strength
The traditional model of a business leader focuses on projecting perfection: emphasizing strengths while downplaying weaknesses. While I used to try to fit this mold, in recent years I’ve learned that to lead effectively I need to have the courage to be me — and that means imperfection. I am not highly polished, prefer flip flops to oxfords, and would rather tell people how it is than what they want to hear.
A few years ago while speaking to a crowd in Dallas, I decided to be me — though this time I left the flip flops in San Diego — and spoke plainly and even threw in a few dad jokes. Afterward, many in the audience approached to tell me how down-to-earth, engaging, and informative my talk had been.
As the leader of thinkPARALLAX, I’ve also tried to act with vulnerability and authenticity. I talk with my team about my fears, faults, and failures. When I see my team facing difficulties, I lead with empathy to see how I can help them get unstuck. Many of us spend the lion’s share of our days at work — what a shame if we can’t be ourselves during this time.
As Brené Brown shares in her Ted Talk: “Dare to be yourself in all your glory - your strengths, skills and beauty as well as your flaws and insecurities. In doing so you can realize true strength and spirit.”
The more we can be ourselves in the workplace, we will be able to work through difficult situations more effectively and be positioned better for success.
4. Build a web, not a pyramid
Traditional corporate hierarchies are built like pyramids — with the boss at the top, a level of leadership below, followed by managers and more junior employees. In this model, decisions flow top-to-bottom, with very little feedback or information flowing upward. While there’s nothing wrong with having defined roles and responsibilities, the pyramid model is as antiquated as, well, the pyramids of old.
Leaders must make decisions based on an incomplete view of what’s happening. The more they can solicit information and knowledge from those “below” them, the clearer their picture of what’s happening will be. The strongest organizations are built more like a web, with communication and information flowing in multiple directions to get where it needs to go.
At thinkPARALLAX, we encourage team members of all levels to contribute ideas, provide feedback (even to those more senior to them), and have the courage to go against corporate conventions of hierarchy when merited. Valuing a diversity of thinking and experiences (as we call Embrace Parallax as one of our values) has proven to be an effective way of developing solutions, ideating, and problem solving. A higher title doesn’t always mean you know better, and some of the best ideas we’ve had in recent years have come from our most junior team members.
We’re working to create a culture where all voices are heard, valued, and put into action. Recently, we instituted a “real time feedback” loop where anyone, at any level can give feedback. In addition, we have 15 minute “coffee meetings” where team members connect to folks they don’t normally work with, regardless of title or hierarchy. I’m positive even our newest team members have ideas that could enlighten the most senior person and as a learning organization, it’s imperative that we all help each other grow in order to facilitate personal growth which will translate into success for the company.
The business benefits of a positive culture
Whenever we have new employees start at thinkPARALLAX, I like to say: “We want you to work here as long as you feel fulfilled and it’s working for both of us. We need you as much as you need us and I will personally help you figure out what is next when the time comes”. While I would love for everyone to work here forever, I understand that thinkPARALLAX may just be one part of their professional journey. The more we can help employees learn and grow here, the better they can contribute to the company.
We pride ourselves on providing the space for growth and open and honest communication about where an employee is in their professional journey. This has resulted in thinkPARALLAX having a more than 90% retention rate last year, and more than 25% of our former employees have come back to work with us. Likewise, when an employee is ready to leave, we often are given much more than a two week notice. It boils down to mutual respect, open and honest communication, and meeting people where they are at.