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August 13th, 2020


Building an Impact Culture: Then & Now

By Mark Gramelspacher, Entrepreneur-in-Residence

Nearly every business leader I’ve met would agree that one concern they have for their organization, if not their top concern, is company culture. Specifically, they think about how they define it, envision it, assess it and most importantly build and maintain an “impact” culture. By “impact” culture, I’m referring to the intangibles beyond business basics that set companies apart and allow them to perform in the top quartile of their competitive set. Company culture drives many of the key variables for an organization, especially operational performance and long-term sustainability.

In my experience, the essence of a strong, successful, impact-oriented culture depends on the level of mutual trust and respect on a team (call it “MT&R”). Ultimately, a culture should support the idea that an organization can get more done working together than by individuals working alone, i.e. the sum exceeds the simple addition of the individuals. That’s synergy. It’s very hard to know how much your culture leans toward impact from one organization to another but it sure pops out when it’s lacking or doesn’t really exist at all. How many people you know leave organizations but can only articulate that “it wasn’t a fit”? When people peel that onion on what happened, it usually lands square on culture. Growth-oriented, impact-oriented, and successful organizations have a strong sense of their ability to collaborate, promote teamwork, and promote honest dialogue. Who doesn’t want to be with a positive winner? By necessity, this requires an abundance of MT&R about strategic organizational issues (and individual too) facing the team. My observation is that successful organizations and teams in those organizations deal with them honestly and forthrightly. In the age of remote work and COVID-19 when the world of teams has been turned upside down, this topic couldn’t be more important, and difficult.

Remote Work and Culture

As all organizations moved into some form of a new work environment – whether it was a completely distributed remote team model deployed by many startups or a combination of in-office/in-situ and remote – the path towards creating an impact culture will now look different. It’s arguably much harder to build now given the lack of basis to form meaningful personal relationships with coworkers. It’s hard enough to provide meaningful opportunity to build MT&R, especially when so much (experts say well over 90%) of effective communication between humans is non-verbal, but what is leadership to do under these circumstances?

A video tool like Zoom, Teams, WebEx or even group texts simply cannot replace the actual time spent at a table or in an office or at an event together; nonetheless, it does play a vital role. There are some benefits to a remote distributed work environment and video conferences, namely no travel cost or downtime. The technology does provide an easy tool to poll participants for feedback and real-time sharing of information. E-mail can help too although it seems to be overused to the point of ineffectiveness in most organizations.

We still have typical technology snafus (now at your own home office), managing the home/work balance and even the topic of personal boundary issues when you essentially invite others into your home, even a home office environment, every day. Each of us has their own perspective on that personal office space and boundary space so it’s a good idea to keep these things in mind when attending or hosting a virtual meeting.

Some of the practical ways I’ve seen leaders manage the current environment are to:

  • Use virtual backgrounds if concerned about personal/professional boundaries.
  • Give employees pointers to set up a home office with appropriate lighting and camera positioning; perhaps providing a small stipend when possible to create a comfortable, separate space for work calls/videos.
  • Be understanding of personal commitments, especially involving family, that will inevitably interfere with work from home. More employees are balancing work and family obligations, especially if you have an elderly parent living in the house or if children are at home for e-learning (which will surely be on and off for the foreseeable future).
  • Prepare for your meeting, start with an end in mind and give a meeting reminder/agenda tool like Docket a try.

How Can an Organization Create an Impact Culture?

Back to the essence of building culture. When I launched my first business, I learned from a handful of mentors and my own team leaders two valuable lessons. First, culture can be defined simply by “how you go about your business, how you “act” as a company” Second, culture stems from a fundamental commitment to MT&R.

Culture can be reflected in things as simple as greeting strangers in an elevator, to how the “boss” treats the night-time cleaning crew, to how you conduct a meeting, meet colleagues and/or blow off steam. Culture reflects from the top down and a team looks to its captain for signals on how to relate to an organization’s primary stakeholders. Culture becomes increasingly important when translated, usually under pressure, to how any team tasked with a certain set of challenges and objectives approaches, pursues, adjusts, and solves problems with action. A lot of startups are lean and relatively flat organizations. As a company grows, it’s important for top leadership to recognize how their actions cascade through one or more levels of management. The eyes truly are on the boss(es).

In the venture-backed startup world where I spend most of my time, culture can sometimes be the defining competitive advantage. The stakes are always high when an entrepreneur takes in money from other people (family, friends and yes, strangers) to prove an idea has significant merit. And in a small team, every person matters and matters a lot. Assembling that team and keeping the team working productively can be a ridiculously difficult challenge. In addition, current research from employment sources such as Glassdoor supports the idea that an organization’s stated, perceived and real values matter more than compensation, benefits and even job security. In essence, culture matters.

Setting up your culture in a way that creates positive behavior and predicts positive outcomes requires time for planning and making the effort itself. I suggest you start with your own personal inventory of values, then sit with your team to define those significant few that are most important. Your company values should be a relatively short list of three or four clearly stated terms. There should be, and will be, trade-offs in your discussion. Before you get to defining strategy, even organizational vision, mission and goals, you must first determine how you intend to go about your day-to-day business. Think about how you and your team should treat investors, customers, vendors, employees and yes, the night-time cleaning crew.


Some Tips to Improve Culture in a Remote Setting
• Seek opportunities to communicate and reinforce the agreed-upon company culture. For example, if integrity is one of your values, then celebrate and share when you see a colleague do the right thing, even though it might have cost some money or caused other near-term pain.

• Encourage fun interactions, such as virtual happy hours, or employee chats in messenger tools like Slack or Teams. Find other ways to get together with or without technology while being appropriately distant physically.

• Welcome new hires to the whole team in a video call. This will ensure the new employee feels welcome and gives the team a chance to interact.

• Consider a mentor program so new employees can have a navigator inside the firm and make sure it has some regularity, especially if new employees are outside of a tight-knit community.

• Schedule regular meetings with the entire team. I’ve observed one relatively large group of employees whose leader has a non-mandatory kickoff webinar literally every morning (for 45-60 minutes) with remarkably high attendance. It is not just him droning on and on; it has become something that everyone looks forward to and they’ve loaded up the meeting with content from all parts of the business. People have learned things about each other and what the firm does that they never would have learned in the office simply by virtue of not having been forced to work remotely.


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