How to Create a Better Company Culture

Business is all about people. This is what I learned from Alan Mulally, former Ford CEO,who not only saved Ford Motor Company from bankruptcy but saw employee satisfaction double during his tenure in Dearborn. So--how do you make it all about the people?

Designers understand this, because they have to put themselves in other people's shoes everyday to solve problems for them. To make their lives better, safer, easier, joyful; to make things simpler and more intuitive; and to give them the feeling that someone actually thought about them. Graphic designer and filmmaker Stefan Sagmeister calls this, "touching someone's heart with design."

Imagine applying this thinking to your day-to-day work.

Answering emails, hosting meetings and giving presentations--most of it can feel like drudgery until you reframe them in the context of serving others. What if every part of our work is about touching someone's heart?

1. Answering email: How can I make email messages special for the person who is receiving them? Each email is an opportunity to show someone else they matter to you.

  • Use emoticons: Jocelyn Glei, author of Unsubscribe, a great how-to book about email, recommends using emoticons and exclamation points as "sort of a shorthand for social cues, conveying that you are playful, excited, enthusiastic, or supportive without requiring you to be overly wordy."
  • Make it personal: add something unique, like your location at the time of your email (greetings from Amsterdam) or an inspirational quote, or a unique sign-off (my favorite is Marshall Goldsmith, author of the best selling book, Triggers, who signs off with "Life is good!").
  • Add a special touch: When words are not enough, include a handwritten note (scanned or photographed), a 10 second video message, or a piece of music (gift it from iTunes) to say "thank you, congratulations or get well."

2. Hosting meetings: We plan dinners, parties, and social get togethers with so much care. Imagine taking similar care with business meetings, thinking of them as hosting meetings, where people feel welcome and well taken care of.

  • Transform: At Lululemon's off-site HR meetings, special care is given to making an otherwise sterile hotel meeting room special, with fragrant flowers, colorful blankets and table runners to create a sense of welcoming. Food preferences are taken into account, food is presented beautifully, and there are ample snacks for low energy moments. Imagine how you'd do it, in your own style.
  • Personalize: Print name cards, have a small sketchbook or a little gift waiting for each person. Provide funny glasses, hats or lab coats if you want to have people role play. Have a give away that leaves an impression--once I distributed cans of sardines to make a funny but pertinent point about office real estate and user density.
  • Clean-up: This may seem obvious but is often overlooked. Open the shades or have them all line up, line up all the tables and chairs, put away any junk from previous meetings, wipe the boards, even arrange furniture if you need to, to make the room presentable, clutter-free and clean.

3. Giving presentations: Most presentations feel lop-sided--one person talks, the rest listen. Even if you're doing most of the talking, here are a couple easy tricks to make everyone else feel included in your presentation:

  • Greet everyone in the room one by one before you get started. Shake their hand, or hug them (if you're a hugger like me). If this is a new group, introduce yourself and let them introduce themselves. Even if you have 80 people, it will take you less than 5 minutes but you will have made a connection before you even started.
  • Get a list of the attendees and include everyone's names in your opening slides. If you have photos, insert photos. This helps everyone feel included.
  • Do a fun little ice breaker in the beginning to get people to relax and be present in the meeting. At our office, we get people to draw each other. Lululemon starts with a meditation.
  • Go around the table, lightning style and have everyone state their mood (it clears the air and you get a chance to explain why you look so stressed, out of sorts or happy).
  • Make your presentation look beautiful. There is nothing like a well-designed presentation that communicates care and consideration for your audience. It doesn't hurt to hire a graphic designer for best results.
  • At the end, do a quick Q&A to make sure you're addressing questions or open issues.
  • Add a thank you slide at the end and thank everyone, for their time, for their contributions, for their high energy.

Try these simple acts of thoughtfulness and you will feel kinder. It won't go unnoticed either. Other people will respond in kind to you. And through greater empathy for each other, you will together change your company culture that is welcoming and people-centered.

How about you? What are some ways you use empathy to build a better company culture? I would love to hear from you.

Design the life and work you love!