From beer to beanbags and massages to manicures, organisations are going to extreme lengths to lure talented employees. But does any of this help build a culture where people are inspired to do their best work?

Four years ago, mobile entertainment firm Scopely hit the headlines with one of the most bizarre sign-on bonuses ever. The fledging start-up was tempting new hires with a package that included $11,000 of cash wrapped in bacon, a self-portrait oil painting, a years supply of Dos Equis beer, a spear gun, a tuxedo, and some “sex panther” aftershave.

And they weren’t alone. San Francisco based Hipster followed suit with an offer of $10,000 in cash (without the bacon), a year’s supply of PBR beer, a fixed-gear bicycle, skinny jeans, Buddy Holly glasses, a pair of worn boots and a beard-grooming service.

Of course, when you’ve gone to such great lengths to hire someone, you can’t expect the poor darling to work their magic in a drab maze of beige cubicles. You’ve got to keep them motivated and entertained with foosball tables, indoor slides, and unlimited food.

Yes, the war on talent has become so great that just offering paid holiday and a health insurance plan no longer cuts it. Instead, you’ve got to disguise work with play, and just hope that the new hire you’ve had to bribe pay to join you, will actually do any work.

But what if you haven’t got the deep pockets of well-funded tech startup? How are you going to attract exceptional folk to work for you, when your culture is nothing like theirs?

A culture of confusion

Corporate culture is one of the most used, yet wildly misunderstood concepts in business today. It has nothing to do with PlayStations or trampolines. Sure, these things can help a company differentiate to an extent, but they do very little to build its culture.

They’re the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

Regardless of perks, if you have a company then you have a culture. You may have never defined it, but it has manifested itself nevertheless. It’s visible in the words and language your employees use with one another. It’s visible in how you treat your customers.

“Everything [in our strategy] our competitors could copy tomorrow. But they can’t copy the culture, and they know it.” – Herb Kelleher, founder Southwest Airlines

In its simplest form, your culture is your organisation’s personality. We see Apple as cool and innovative. Lush as quirky and ethical. Virgin as irreverent and fun. Think of any famous company, and you’ll probably be able to give them an associated character trait.

So if it happens anyway, why bother with it? It’s probably best if we reframe things for a second. On a scale of 1-10, how important are these objectives to your organisation?

  • Fostering more innovation and creativity
  • Becoming a magnet for exceptional talent
  • Improving employee loyalty and engagement
  • Increasing productivity and performance
  • Ensuring your customers have a delightful experience
  • Actively distinguishing yourself from the competition

All of these are the measurable outcomes of a high-performance culture. A culture that has been treated as a strategic asset, with as much deliberate intention as any other core initiative such as product development, financial control or information technology.

Culture can have a profound impact on the success of your organisation. And regardless of your size or industry, you have the ability to build a culture of high-performance.

The evolution of company culture

When a company begins life, it’s typical for the founders to influence all aspects of the business, from who gets hired, to who gets fired. The culture of the company begins to form around their behaviours, regardless of whether they are officially defined, or not.

But over time, founders can’t have as much control. They aren’t able to do all of the hiring, and oversee all of the decisions. Different people bring different values and behaviours. The organisation starts to feel unfamiliar. Its personality begins to change.

Fast forward a decade or so, and the company isn’t that recognisable anymore.

Maybe you’re in this position. Either as the leader of an established organisation, or the founder of your own. You’re desperate to make your company more innovative, or customer focussed. And you’ve tried everything from software, to scooters.

At its core, culture is about behaviour. And it’s easy to spot if you’re looking out for it. Just watch how people treat each other in the canteen. Pay attention to what type of ideas get implemented and celebrated. More importantly, does anything get celebrated at all?

Values live in the heart, not on the wall

Unlike products or services, your culture is as unique as a fingerprint. It’s the one thing about your business that can’t be stolen. The cost of leaving it to chance is too great.

For many organisations, there is a stark contrast between the values they live, and the values they display. The true values of a company are visible through its behaviour, not what’s written in its annual report, or on a dusty wall plaque. If the behaviour you’re witnessing isn’t in line with what you want, then you need to readdress the values.

“Few things are more critical to leadership success than building a healthy culture. Great corporate cultures are intentional; they are built by design.” – Mike Myatt

When defining your values, it’s key to go beyond the lofty vague references like “Teamwork” and “Integrity” and define unique, action-oriented phrases that guide behaviour. For example, try swapping “Service”, with “Treat Customers Like Family”.

But clever wordsmithery isn’t enough. It’s imperative that your values live in people’s hearts, not on your office wall. And the number one heart, has to be your own.

Culture change starts at the top, or it doesn’t start at all. Nothing significant will ever happen unless you personally embody the values, and associated behaviours. You have to become the cheerleader for the change, in order for it to have any chance of success.

Holding everyone accountable for living the values, regardless of their role or seniority is paramount. You have to be prepared to turn down talented employees that don’t fit, and promote the ones that do. Building a high-performance culture isn’t achieved through words and posters, its only achieved through observable behaviour.

The future of work

In 2014, Collegefeed surveyed 15,000 Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) and asked them what are the top three things they look for when considering an employer. A whopping 12,000 of them rated “people and culture fit” at number one.

In ten years, Millennials will account for three quarters of our workforce. And it appears this civic-minded generation isn’t motivated by money. According to Fast Company, more than 50% of them would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values.

If you want to attract the talent of tomorrow, I’d cancel the Nerf guns and the Yogi. Your time is much better spent building a values-driven culture people want to be a part of.