Creating an environment that fosters those values is important and it starts at the top. As a CEO you have to be the model for your employees.

A significant mistake that executives and young founders make is confusing authority and leadership. When managers focus their time on maintaining their authority as opposed to developing their leadership, they will lose the loyalty of their employees. In such companies, you’ll find leadership teams that don’t know their employees and lack accountability at the top of the organizations. However, when leadership devotes time to setting an example of the company’s culture and getting to know their people, you’ll find lower turnover, a deep sense of loyalty, and natural camaraderie.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Alex Shubat from Espresa for the ongoing series: CEOs Share Leadership Strategies To Improve Your Company’s Culture.

Alex Shubat is the CEO and Co-founder of Espresa, and a member of the Band of Angels, one of Silicon Valley’s oldest seed funding organizations. Alex brings an extensive history in executive management and venture funding to his leadership of Espresa.

Krish Chopra: What are the 3 most important values that your company’s culture is based on?

Alex Shubat:

  1. Customers must be enamored with our product and service
  2. Innovation with speed and scale
  3. Teamwork and trust

Being a good leader means providing clear leadership and listening to your employees regardless of differences

Krish: Managing millennials can often be a polarizing topic. Can you elaborate on your advice for managing the “millennial mindset?”

Alex: There’s a lot of discussion on both sides of the topic of millennials, but what I think is important to remember is that while each generation has common traits based on the impacts of their formative years, what’s important to understand is that they are still individuals who have unique needs and like all younger generations, they are hungry to learn, just as we were. Being a good leader means providing clear leadership and listening to your employees regardless of differences.

Krish: What are your “5 Ways to Improve Your Company’s Culture” and why.

Alex: Lead by example. There are two types of commanders with a call to battle: 1) Attack! But I’ll stay behind, or 2) Follow me! Managers should not just push the team and then go home. Leaders are the ones turning the lights off.

Example: As a startup, you have to roll up your sleeves and do work because there’s so much to do and not enough time. I help every part of the business from closing deals to QA on product.

  • Offer ways for employees to engage cross-functionally: People tend to stay in their own department, creating silos of information, fostering an environment and encouraging people to mix and mingle is the best way to enable dialogue and improve on cross-functional collaboration. Focus on company events where you can bring everyone together. Sure, if you build it, they will come, but more than just attending, you have to find ways of mixing up the departments to push employees out of their comfort zone, so they can learn about other departments.

Example: We just had our 3rd annual Espresa ski trip to Tahoe and we often have birthday celebrations, team lunches and outings. But more than having fun, we have monthly operations meetings where we share the status and goals of each department in an effort to remain transparent to our employees.

  • Culture is top down and bottoms up: As a company you can have a top down culture that executives, and by extension, HR, focus on, but it’s important to remember that culture is also bottom up. Encouraging employee-run programs enables a culture that is built organically by the very people who are responsible for it.

Example: Our own team has started their own Bitcoin club where they chat about cryptocurrency and share best practices with their teammates. We often see these employee run groups with our clients who will fund any club that has a certain quantity of employee participation. I think this is key to building a cohesive company culture.

  • Culture is a dialogue: ask your employees what’s most important to them. Take their feedback into consideration.

Example: We value employee feedback on everything we do and all opinions are taken into consideration whether it be the label we use on the product or a picture on a website. Hiring the best employees and valuing their opinion has allowed us to have a fully engaged workforce, which has led to a strong vision and even stronger product.

  • Recognize those that are exemplar models: when you see a person that exemplifies the culture that you are trying to cultivate, be sure to recognize them so their peers can understand examples of the traits and actions that support your ideal culture.

Example: Recognition doesn’t have to be formal, although that’s always appreciated. At Espresa, I take every opportunity to recognize a job well done and praise pivotal employees in our meetings. Just something as simple as mentioning a person’s name makes them feel appreciated and strengthens the culture.

Krish: Strong company culture is something that everyone likes to think they have but very few have it. Why do so many organizations struggle with creating strong, healthy work environments?

Alex: I think many organizations don’t understand what culture means and lack the ability to convey culture. Culture are common traits and expectations that the employee collective possesses that helps them to understand who will thrive in that environment and what is expected. For example, our culture is one of trust and transparency, which means that we share honest information about the company in a monthly company meeting. We also trust our employees to come together on solutions and move forward. Creating an environment that fosters those values is important and it starts at the top. It goes back to my first value of being an effective leader. As a CEO you have to be the model for your employees. 
 The other pillar of culture is providing the space for culture to develop. I’m not talking about physical space, but space in the schedule, fostering employee resource groups, creating company events and most importantly finding programs that employees can bond around. Departments get siloed, so part of spreading the culture of a workplace is creating the space for employees to integrate.

Every manager needs to feel comfortable hiring more experienced and smarter people

Krish: What is one mistake you see a young start-up founders make in their culture or leadership practices?

Alex: Anyone who is young thinks that they know it all. As we get older and make mistakes, we learn more. Young founders need to know what they don’t know. It is best to surround them selves with experts who can complement their skills. This has to be driven down the organization, every manager needs to feel comfortable hiring more experienced and smarter people. This is the only way to build and amazing company!

Krish: To add to the previous question, young CEOs often have a lot of pressure to perform and often wear many hats. What’s a simple time efficient strategy they can start doing today to improve their company’s culture?

Alex: “Spread the Wealth” — it is important to make sure all executives and all managers are operating with similar workload and stress levels. This requires delegation and trust. If I am the only one pushing for the deadline — it can succeed once or twice but eventually we are human and run out of steam. Set the expectations and goals early and communicate clearly so that all can take up the slack.

Krish: Success leaves clues. What has been your biggest influence in your leadership strategy and company culture?

Alex: At Espresa we’re defining a new category in the HR Benefits Technology space, which means that we need to play by different rules and take a chance. I read the book Play Bigger that studies the groundbreaking tactics of companies (Salesforce, Airbnb, Google) defining a new category. This has helped our culture to understand that we need to take more risks and constantly communicate success and lessons learned so we can move towards being the leader in employee programs automation.

Krish: What advice do you have for employees that have bad bosses? How can they take control and improve a bad situation?

Alex: Examine your options. Start with the source. Is that person approachable or coachable. Would they be open to feedback? If yes, bring it up directly in a face to face meeting. If no, then examine if this issue is exclusive to you or if it is a problem with the entire team. If it’s not working with the team and that person has another level of management above them, then you can work with HR and the executive team to try and change things. If none of those options are available, look for a culture that is a better fit and use the lessons you learned to become a better interviewee when you look for a new company.

Krish: Okay, we made it! Last question — what’s one unique hack you or your company does that has enhanced your work culture?

Alex: As a startup, it is important not to have too many barriers — open door policy is best. I am approachable 24/7 by any employee. And yes, laugh. Never take yourself too seriously. Have pride in your work, but learn to laugh with your colleagues, which not only bonds your culture, but it relieves stress.

A note to the readers: Improving company culture happens at any level in an organization. If you learned one thing in this interview, please share this with someone close to you.

A special thanks to Alex Shubat again!

A extra special thanks for Madison Whelchel for today’s edits.

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  • Krish Chopra

    2x entrepreneur and founder of NP Hub. Let’s discuss leadership, scaling, and relationships to serve communities that need more support! In ATL

    Krish Chopra is the founder of NPHub. He believes in two truths: everything is a learnable skill and real leadership involves caring for others. Krish’s mission is to better support underserved communities and he and his team are currently serving the nursing industry so students have more resources to graduate on-time. He’s also contributes to major publications such as Forbes, Fast Company, and Inc., and has been featured in a dozen more.