Building an Intentional Culture

Airship CEO and Co-founder Trent Kocurek spoke at TechBirmingham’s monthly Tech Tuesday luncheon program on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. His presentation, “Intentional Culture,” shared insights into intentional leadership and how amazing company cultures are built.

There were so many great lessons from Trent’s presentation, we had to share a recap of the event and key takeaways.

Defining intentional

The ideas being presented to build an engaging company culture are not revolutionary. The difference is intentionality. The definition of intentional is done on purpose, or deliberate. This is the critical piece. Being intentional in all you do is easy in concept, but difficult in practice.

Defining culture

Boiled down, culture is the cumulation of individuals with different traits that work in unison to move a company’s vision forward. We do not look for people who fit into a predefined set of skills alone. We look for people who believe in our “why.”

Defining your “Why?”

One of our favorite quotes is from Simon Sinek in his book, Start with Why: “Average organizations give their people something to work on. Great organizations give their people something to work toward.”

Airship founders with TechBirmingham

Your “why” is the shared beliefs and passions for why your organization exists. It doesn’t have to be one thing – it can be many. And it can be emotional – running a business is an emotional journey, so put some feelings into it! Ask your team what they think – what do they love about their position? Do you notice any patterns in their feedback? Once you define your “why,” put it in a place where everyone can see it.

Documenting our shared beliefs and passions for Why Airship exists was a very important task for a few reasons:

  • It allows us to approach difficult decisions with clear goals in mind.
  • It allows for more autonomy within your team because everyone has questions to ask themselves when making a decision.
  • It helps in hiring, millennials especially, given that most want to work for a company that has an underlying mission.
  • It’s the INTENT in Intentional that we are talking about today.

When we look for new hires, we look for people who will passionately believe in our Why, not someone who matches the skills criteria or someone who might get along with our team. They have to be completely on board with our Why above all else. That’s what everyone on our team has in common – their belief in our purpose.

Hiring

“People are not your most important asset. The right people are.” – Jim Collins, Good to Great

At Airship, we strongly believe that new hires must be a good culture fit. No matter how much we may need their skills at the moment, we do not hire them if they do not agree with our Why. We look for alignment with our Why, passion, drive, and grit, then we interview for skills. Make your interview questions correlate with your Why.

As our Opportunity Explorer Lead Luke Richardson puts it, “Passion is a necessity for skills to be properly applied.”

Hire people that fill gaps in your team, set of skills, and personality traits. Your entire team should be diverse with everyone agreeing on your Why. To do this, you must understand the personality traits on the team (we use Culture Index) to see what’s missing. This also creates more understanding for people who interact together often. Then you can define what traits are needed for a role. And always hire people who are smarter than you.

Be very transparent in the hiring process (and in the job posting). Tell them what they’re getting into up front and don’t waste anyone’s time. Here’s an example of what we promise to those that come to work at Airship. 

Firing

Letting people go is never easy, but neither is regaining trust from a team that you allowed a bad fit to stay in. Before letting anyone go, we first see if they would be better in a different seat. This is not always possible, sometimes there are no open seats.

For those having to make this decision, a few tips have helped with my approach:

  • We know a person that is not a fit for your company could be an A player at another company. It’s not fair for them or your other team members to keep them there.
  • We think of our entire team instead of focusing on the individual alone.
  • We are fully transparent about our decision and why.

Letting people go is a very important piece of being intentional.

Trusting

“Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up – it means you trust them even when they do screw up.” – Ed Catmull

Trust is crucial to a company’s growth. You do not have time to make every single decision. We empower people to make decisions – they are smart and understand our Why, that’s why we hired them.

Another great quote from Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc. is “What is the point of hiring smart people, we asked, if you don’t empower them to fix what’s broken?” – Ed Catmull

Some ways we trust our team:

  • Navigators work with the builders to set the project management process.
  • Builders choose the times of day they work that is most productive to them.
  • Explorers can negotiate price points to get a deal agreed upon.

We make Airship a safe place to make mistakes. We have learned so much from them. The key here is to learn from the mistake.

Action items for building trust with your team:

  • Delegate decision making to your team. Allow them to define their processes.
  • Give support and critique along the way.
  • As leaders, make your screwups a little more public to garner trust. Apologize and say aloud what you’ve learned from it.

Perhaps the best way we place trust in our team is with remote work. We allow our team to work wherever they are most productive and from whichever city they call home.

Inspiring

Inspired people inspire others. We do our best to teach people how to find wins in their day-to-day. If they are goal oriented, help them structure their tasks in a way that plays on that. If they are team-oriented, make sure they see how their work fits into the success of the team.

One great way to inspire your team is with weekly one-on-one meetings. Be honest and direct with performance. Give criticism when it’s due. Praise privately but also leave some praise for public display. We like to publicly praise people as much as possible, such as in our weekly team meetings.

Most importantly, get your people in front of a customer. Seeing the hard work impact someone in a positive way is the best way to inspire someone to enjoy the best times and push through the difficult ones.

A view from the Burr Forman suite at Tech Tuesday

Growing

“Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.” – Ed Catmull

We are a team of passionate learners who believe you must make “getting better” a central part of your company culture if you want to grow. On our team, we do this by providing our team members with access to conferences, purchase books and Udemy courses, provide dedicated 10% learning and growth time each week, and conduct weekly learning meetings where we teach each other something new.

Prioritizing health is also vital to growth. Healthy minds need exercise which is why we offer a gym reimbursement and have flexible schedules.

We also consider career growth for our individual team members. We don’t assume that everyone on the team wants to move into management. Far too often this is the default “promotion” path. We try and understand our crew members’ goals. Some people want to be amazing project navigators and developers all their lives. Make sure they have a success path, too.

Action Items for being intentional with Growth:

  • Set aside some money to invest in the personal and professional growth of your team and MAKE them use it.
  • Offer some type of health benefit
  • Healthy snacks
  • Walking trails
  • Team hikes
  • In your one-on-ones, find out what your crew’s true professional goals are.

Conclusion

We are intentional about learning and growing at Airship and fulfilling our Why/purpose. We have been able to intentionally build a great, winning company culture thanks to the wonderful experiences we’ve had at previous organizations, the knowledge we’ve gained from reading authors who know a lot more than we do, by trial-and-error, and by being open with our team and listening to their feedback.

Some great books we suggest: Start with Why, Creativity, Inc., Good to Great, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.