“When we were a smaller organization, I had a lot more influence on the culture than I do now,” says Sean Kelly, CEO of SnackNation, a company that delivers healthy snacks to offices and homes across America. SnackNation currently has about 150 employees headquartered in Culver City, California.
Sean says as the company roster has expanded, he’s had to be more intentional about scaling the culture, and that includes being more proactive about collecting team members’ feedback.
“There were multiple phases where the influence of culture changed as our company grew. But we certainly felt it when we got to around 90 to 100 team members. I'd even say around the 30- or 40-person mark, our mid-level leadership influenced culture more than top leadership,” shares Sean.
“As a leader, I could still help guide and shape our culture—but it was really no longer primarily under my influence.”
“I’ve become more accepting of poll assessments and various surveys as the organization has grown larger; I'm not shaping the culture as much as I used to, and so it's very good for me to continually ensure that I understand what's going on, what's being said, and what's being felt.”
With that in mind, here are 4 ways great, authentic leaders—including Sean from SnackNation and Mari Wenrick from Value Added Packaging—use feedback from their employees to scale culture.
1. Use feedback to measure progress
“It doesn't really matter where you are, it's where you're going,” says Sean, which is why soliciting feedback and measuring drivers of engagement are both important at SnackNation.
“Everything's relative, but as long as you're getting better, and as long as people have a reason to believe that—or that there is the chance for things to get better—the team members are going to be excited, and they are going to be engaged.”
Don’t focus too much on where you are at now; instead, consider culture assessments as a barometer to examine over time. Another tip from Sean: Start by seeking to understand what motivates people and what people need to do their best work. If you don’t know the answer to those questions, then the information you’re gathering may not be as useful as it could be.
2. Use feedback to promote accountability
Getting feedback from employees or using engagement surveys is also a way to ensure and promote shared accountability. “It helps to build a culture of ownership. If we ask somebody, ‘What is your plan to achieve success?’ Or, ‘What support are you seeking from us to help you achieve success?’ We are able to get answers to those questions, and then hold people accountable for growth,” explains Sean.
“Often times, there are a lot of answers to these questions that indicate how someone is feeling about the organization or what they need. If we give them what they need to be successful, then we have a plan together, where as long as we're both improving, we're going to get there and we can hold all parties accountable.”
3. Use feedback to build transparency
One of the best ways SnackNation is able to check the pulse of their company culture is through monthly, open Q&A sessions.
These are anonymous, question-and-answer format sessions where anyone within the company can ask top leadership any question they want. In turn, leaders get vulnerable and honest in front of the entire group.
“We don't know who wrote any of the questions. We also don't allow anyone else to see the questions that other people are asking beforehand. They just enter it into a shared Google Document and we answer it in front of the team,” he says.
The open-ended questions uncover deep, meaningful insights around what people are thinking and feeling—and better yet, why they are feeling that way. “You can spot trends. You can also see if it's one person who's just frustrated and having a bad day, or maybe it's a disgruntled employee versus actually recognizing themes that multiple people feel,” explains Sean.
While they also use regular surveys, this is just one more way leaders at SnackNation embrace transparency while equipping team members to share what’s on their mind.
4. Use feedback to celebrate shared values
In this video, Mari Wenrick, Chief Champion of Culture at Value Added Packaging (VAP) explains how the company conducted a culture survey to gauge attitudes and perceptions within the company. “There were certain questions that I asked, such as, ‘What do you think about the company?’, ‘What do you think about the owners?’” Employees had the opportunity for the feedback to be anonymous.
It might have taken vulnerability on leadership’s behalf to ask such questions, but the feedback resulted in a major milestone for the company in terms of its culture journey.
The employee feedback was consistently articulated using the VAP language; it focused on the company values of love, family, care, and respect. “[This feedback] showed that they…really understood what we were doing and believed, and they had ownership in it, which was fantastic,” says Mari.
What employees wrote in their feedback was so moving that they put the messages on display on campus, which was another way they were able to celebrate the company’s culture.
The behavior of employees shifted from conscious actions to unconscious, cultural norms in alignment with the company values, says Mari. The unconscious was, “This is now what I'm a part of, and this is what I believe in,” she explains.
“And that, to me, was an amazing turning point because it showed that they bought into what we were doing and really had ownership in it.”
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