Culture and Ping-Pong

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 8 min read

It’s been said, but it bears repeating…Ping-Pong tables are not culture.

I’ve seen far too many companies pat themselves on the back for their “amazing culture,” only to point to their abundance of snacks when asked about it.

Today, we’re going to clear up the confusion about what is and what is not culture, and how to go about building a great culture.

What’s not Culture?

  • Free lunch on Friday isn’t it.
  • Ping Pong Tables, Foosball, Pool Tables, and video games, are not it.
  • Weekly stand-ups and one-on-one meetings are not it.

None of those are culture. For the sake of this discussion, and in the absence of a more specific all-encompassing term, I will refer to all of these as THINGS.

Here’s why so many people misunderstand how to build a great culture…

When you look at companies that have high ratings on the best places to work surveys, you see a lot of things: ping pong tables, cafeterias, slides, ball pits, mid-day water gun fights, nap pods, on-site massage, on-site dry cleaning, etc.

Culture is not about video games

So, the leaders who are itching for a great company culture, copy those THINGS.

What the leader fails to understand is that those THINGS are not what make a culture, those THINGS are outgrowths of a particular culture. The culture came first…then they got the Pool Table.

What is Culture?

Culture is the set of customs and beliefs that are passed from person-to-person and that, in aggregate, define “the way it is around here.”

Said differently, Culture doesn’t answer what, it answers why, and it answers who.

Having a nap room, is not culture.

Encouraging every team member to be mindful of their mental and emotional health and providing avenues to do that, is culture.

Having free lunch oN Friday, is not culture.

Creating an environment where people feel appreciated for their contributions and where the company / management do nice things for their team as a sign of appreciation, is culture.

Paying for your team to take classes, is not culture.

Stating and supporting the belief that every team member should have the opportunity to grow to their fullest potential and learn subjects that interest them, is culture.

It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.

The THINGS are outputs and behaviors of a company that seeks to live their values and brand. The work to have those values, and the work that goes along with creating an environment in alignment with those values comes first and the THINGS are not a replacement for the work that must come first.

Culture is not singular

Another mistake that people make when building a company is believing that there is one culture. Sure, there is a primary set of values and beliefs that determine the Brand. However, within any company of more than 4 people, there are subcultures. A well-functioning company fosters a culture that is open and inclusive enough to allow all of those individual subcultures to be aligned with the primary culture.

For instance, in large companies, there is likely a different culture for women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and people of different age cohorts. There will likely be different cultures broken out by department from accounting to creatives, engineers to administrative, management to entry level.

“How it is around here” will result in a different answer depending on who you ask and sometimes even when you ask them. But, it’s important to understand that whoever you ask…THAT is the culture. Culture is a subjective experience. If you are a 40-year old, cisgender, married, white male (like me) working in strategy, your experience in a company may be very different than a 22-year old single, black woman hired as an admin, or a 30-year old gay, Chinese-American man in accounting, or a 55-year old Latinx woman in HR.

The Culture is the aggregate over everyone’s unique experience. THAT is why culture is not a Ping Pong table.

How to Build A Great Culture

I’m reading a book on this subject right now so it’s fresh in my mind. However, as I’m going through the book it is occurring to me how unnecessary half of the book is. There are countless books written on this subject and plenty of experts. However, I believe culture-building is extraordinarily simple.

Here is the Jeff Gibbard 2-step process for building a great culture.
  1. Build a solid foundation
  2. Culture always comes first

I’ll explain…

1. Build a solid foundation

Remember the story of the three little pigs? When the huffing and puffing began, it was the house made of bricks that shut down the threat. That third pig had the right idea, so take it a step further and build your culture (house) with steel reinforced concrete.

Take the time at the beginning to get really clear on who you are. If you’ve done your homework and gone through the process of building your Brand, you should be 95% of the way there. Your culture needs to be 100% aligned with your Brand. If it is in conflict with your Brand, you’re going to have problems, I can guarantee it.

There are a variety of different attributes that you may want your culture to rally behind. You may say words like ambitious, competitive, driven, attention to detail, blah, blah, blah. All that stuff is fine, but let’s build your base first. Your culture plan needs exactly 4 ingredients to withstand whatever business excellence terms you come up with next.

A sustainable culture needs to be: Inclusive, Open and Transparent, Ambitious + Positive, Respectful.

Inclusive

Inclusive cultures greatly expand your pool of qualified candidates. Inclusive cultures retain a greater share of employees they hire. Inclusive cultures incentivize innovation. Inclusive cultures are able to adapt and change as they grow. Inclusive cultures, by definition, must be flexible enough to include new ideas and perspectives.

Open and Transparent

A culture that is open and transparent is one where trust can flourish. It is one where conflicts and disputes are resolved more quickly and effectively. Open and transparent cultures are ones that can support the culture of inclusiveness.

Ambitious and Positive

Ambition is about reaching for more, and positivity is about a commitment to making things better. Who wants to work anywhere that isn’t trying to do great things? Who wants to come into a dreary, negative, and pessimistic environment? A company that seeks to continually do better and that strives to remain positive and optimistic, is the kind of place anyone would want to work.

Respectful

Respect is not about titles. It doesn’t flow in one direction, but in every direction. Cultures of respect are ones where there is an invisible line, no matter the situation, that will not be crossed. It is a place where the boundaries of experience are set to prohibit invalidating someone else’s experience.

The reason you need these 4 ingredients in your culture plan…

Because whatever you come up with next, is enhanced by or kept in check by these basic tenets of human decency.

If you want to encourage competitiveness, then at least…

  • it won’t be to the detriment of being inclusive,
  • it won’t allow for cut-throat, win-at-all-costs style of play,
  • it will be about everyone winning rather than winners and losers, and
  • the competition will be respectful rather than jealous or condescending.

These 4 “magic ingredients” are what allow for the other aspects of your culture to flourish without going down a dark path.

2. Culture always comes first

Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

Peter Drucker

Your people are your single most important component of your company.

Not your product. Not a single star player. Not even your customers.

You must put culture at the top of your priorities and think about it early and often. Your culture will continually define your Brand, and it will shape your ability to recruit or retain top talent.

You must protect your culture at all costs, but you mustn’t protect it by only hiring people who already “fit” the existing culture. As the company grows, it must be added to because diversifying your culture is your only chance of growing it. It is your only chance of staying nimble and flexible.

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

George S. Patton

As you go about building your business, you must always pay close attention to your culture. Talk to your people, not because weekly meetings are culture, but because what is said in those meetings is.

What to do next…

Culture is not about Ping Pong Tables

If you’ve got a ping pong table, look to see who’s using it. More importantly, look to see who isn’t. Your ping pong table might just be creating cliques.

In your stand-ups and one-on-one meetings, ask yourself if what’s being said, brings the team closer together or isolates them into deliverable-only thinking.

Your culture is a cumulative process and you can change direction at any time. Just keep in mind that you will never build an amazing culture if you focus on THINGS instead of PEOPLE.

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