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5 Mistakes People Make When Trying to Build a Meaningful Workplace Culture

Ivory Robinson

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Dragons are all around HarpData. On my LinkedIn profile, my job title is “Father of Dragons.” It’s on our newsletter—The Weekly Slayer—too. 

Emboldened by faith in our company and its culture, we’re not afraid to go after big clients like the University of Buffalo, City of Buffalo, Buffalo Public Schools, Veterans Affairs—those are dragons. One of our first clients, Great Lakes Health in Buffalo, is a $2.5 billion healthcare organization—that’s a dragon. 

At HarpData, everybody wants to slay a dragon and become a legend. That’s our culture, and we work hard to ensure that every decision we make and every person we hire contributes to that culture.   

If you’re trying to craft a great culture, before doing anything else, take a step back. Think about what you’re really trying to achieve. Most of us are looking for a few key indicators: productivity, growth and employee fulfillment.

After all, the people who enjoy waking up every morning and going into the office are going to be the highest producers; the people you can count on to get the job done well.

But remember: Even when you’ve achieved a culture you feel good about, the work’s not done. You still have to preserve the great culture you’ve created as you scale. 

These are the five mistakes leaders often make as they build and protect company culture: 

1. Failing to understand what culture is.

Every decision you make influences culture. Everything you communicate to your team contributes to a cultural narrative. Every strategic decision shapes culture. One bad choice can kill your culture. 

You won’t make the best decision every time, but it helps to simply recognize that every choice you make, from who you hire to the strategy you employ, directly impacts company culture. With that in mind, you will better understand your culture and better equip yourself to preserve it.  

2. Talking about culture without taking action. 

You can’t just say, “Hey everyone, listen up. This is our culture now. OK, thanks.” 

That’s not how culture works—it’s an ongoing, effortful process. I expect my team to be innovative and free-thinking. But I know simply telling them to be that way just isn’t enough. It’s a constant battle. With every move and every decision, I make sure that these priorities are top of mind. 

Set up your workplace so it naturally creates the great culture you want. 

3. Failing to prioritize diversity.

The necessity of a diverse workforce cannot be overstated.

Diversity is a key component of innovation, especially in tech. Diversity and inclusion is a core company value of ours. In fact, I believe so strongly in the positive impact of diversity that I hope to hire a “diversity manager” by 2020.

Always aim to hire people from different backgrounds and create a more diverse workforce. 

4. Neglecting internal communication. 

At a lot of companies, it’s all about marketing and client/customer communications. Sure, those people are paying you. But your employees are the ones who make your product or service worth paying for. 

It’s important to consistently communicate big ideas such as your company mission, new strategies, etc. to your team. But you should also talk about the little things employees care about, like new office furniture or parking, for example. My routine is to discuss all of these items through a quarterly, company-wide video conference.

As the CEO of my company, I don’t want to be invisible or inaccessible. Instead, I want my people to be happy to see me; to give me a hug when I walk in the door. And I know that starts with open communication and creating strong relationships. 

Always put internal communication first. 

5. Hiring the wrong person.

One bad hire can negatively impact your entire organization. 

Someone may be an all-star on paper, but a culture-killer on the ground. So with that in mind, I’m always looking for someone who will boost our business—and its people. You don’t want just any soldier in the foxhole with you when the battle starts; some people are only worried about themselves. 

Look for new hires who will contribute to both the business and culture of your company. 

A successful culture might look different at every company—but it should be all about the team.

The backbone of our culture is team-minded selflessness. When your back is against the wall here, you’re never alone. It’s amazing to watch how the team responds when someone needs help. Everyone jumps to lend a hand if they can. 

Our culture—and every great culture—is a combination of so many factors. Because that’s what company culture is: that aura that pushes people to do their best for their teammates and the company, without even thinking about it. 

As a leader, contributions to your workplace culture will be given back tenfold by your team.

Ivory Robinson is the founder and president of HarpData and the Father of Dragons.

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