The Secret Behind Building a Genuine Culture

7 min read


top company cultures 2017

top company cultures 2017
The terms “culture” and “engagement” are buzzwords that get tossed around a lot these days when talking about what makes a good workplace. Entrepreneur Magazine recently recognized Zen Planner as the 12th Best Company Culture in the medium-sized businesses category, which is a huge recognition for an unassuming office located in the ‘burbs above a sandwich shop. As the head of Talent & Culture at Zen Planner, it also got me thinking, “why does Zen Planner have such a good culture?”.

As I zeroed in on four fundamental ideas that give us our special personality, each of those ideas is built off one solid, unshakable platform: our values. To sum it up, since people are the foundation of any successful business, then the values by which they and the company live by are the foundation and guiding principles for those people.

Let’s break this down a bit. Our company values guide who we hire, how we grow our team and company and how we work with our customers. Our founders were a part of building them, our CEO and Leadership team fully believe in them and the people we hire hold themselves and each other accountable for embodying them.

I will let you in on a little secret: living by our values takes effort, grit, determination, mental toughness and hard work. Every. Single. Day. There is one teensy-tiny downside of winning these “best company” awards, and that is the misconception that working here is easy. That the fun and rewarding atmosphere comes without a lot of effort. False. Working here is rewarding when you bust your butt to help our customer’s business grow. Working here is fun when your career skyrockets and coworkers respect you because you are a good person who has earned your place. This is done by showing you are willing to put in the work and can still have great aim with a NERF dart. We take our values very seriously and that is why the amazing team that works here is proud to do so. So how do we do this?

Well first, we hire the whole person. A resume shows a small slice of who someone is and the skills they have. When we hire someone, we get the whole pie, not just that little slice. We not only get their great experience, we also get their dog, hobbies, secret talents, in-laws, kids and eating preferences. And thank goodness for that, because holy diversity, Batman! In addition to role-specific skills, we screen for our values in interviews. We have found that those people who are obsessed with continuous learning, are humble, energetic and kind, with a positive, take-no-prisoners work ethic, are our kind of people.

sean kettlebellSecond, we build and maintain trust. I know, I know. “Trust”, “communication” and “transparency” are such corporate-y buzzwords and yet, trust remains the foundation for any relationship and trust comes from communication. Internally, we bookend our weeks with a Monday all-company meeting and Friday team lunch. We share monthly and quarterly financial results. We set quarterly goals and spend a few hours each quarter, as a company, discussing our progress the previous quarter. A few times a year we host “Ask the CEO Anything” fireside chats and he answers all questions sent his way. We give shout-outs to people who are living our values, we have an annual 360 strategic session that each person in the company participates in, and the team passes around a weekly Kettlebell award that has turned into a weekly competition on who can write the most creative recognition for a team member who has lived our values.

Third, we grow people both inside and outside of Zen Planner. Our high-performing team members have their own personal life goals and as a leader at this company, it is my job to help them clear the trail so they can pave their path. We had a team member write up a job description and pitch themselves for a role that didn’t exist. It was a role that we needed and so we promoted them. We had somebody who didn’t have the experience they needed for a role. They found another team member who had the necessary experience and they worked together after-hours for several weeks to knowledge-share. This individual ending up gaining the necessary skills and was promoted. We have a Dream Wall where each person chooses a non-work related goal to accomplish during the year, and we, as a team, rally around each other to achieve them. Some of our goals for this year include:

  • Get out of debt
  • Buy a house
  • Do five unbroken pull-ups

2017 goal wall

And finally, we empower and support leadership in Zen Planner. Titles do not make people a leader, actions do. We support the team in bringing their passions to our office. The team members who care deeply about the environment added more recycle bins around our office. They also voiced their opinions about updating our lighting system to motion sensors when we expanded our office last year. Someone recently was shocked at how few people take advantage our of PTO for volunteer work. In turn, they started a Kindness Initiative to help match people to volunteer opportunities in the community. From being team captain of the kickball team to organizing a discounted shopping night at a favorite clothing store, our team brings the ideas, and it is our job as leaders to support them.

We chose the acronym, OHANA, for our company values and (for those Lilo and Stitch fans), ohana is Hawaiian for “family”. And our big, loving, personality-filled Zen Planner family is bound together, working towards common goals and forever guided by our values. So yes, while “culture” and “engagement” might currently be hot topics, they’re two concepts that aren’t going anywhere at Zen Planner, even when the buzzword effect begins to fade.

Is company culture important to you too? Check out our open jobs!
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