Recently I had the opportunity to interview Steve Benson from Badger Maps for the ongoing series: CEOs Share Leadership Strategies To Improve Your Company’s Culture.

Steve Benson is Founder and CEO of Badger Maps, the #1 route planner for field salespeople in the Apple App store. He was Google Enterprise’s Top Performing Salesperson in the World and has been selected as one of the Top 40 Most Inspiring Leaders in Sales Lead Management. Steve is a passionate career coach and has built a successful internship and employee training program where he helps people at Badger develop fulfilling careers and thrive in their role.

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

Steve Benson:

Diversity: Employees are key to our diversity efforts being successful. We don’t have any specific incentives in place, but it’s important to all of us so we make it happen. One key is that we approach recruiting differently than most tech startups. A lot of companies in the Bay corner themselves by only hiring from Ivy League and upper echelon schools. This may seem like a strong move, however, it prevents companies from building a strong and diverse culture. We hire from various colleges where the student body is rich in diversity and reflects the community of the Bay Area which gives us great and very talented candidates.

We are committed to advancing both gender and racial diversity and prioritize fostering a culture that allows our employees to feel comfortable and welcome in the space. At Badger, 50% of our employees are women and we have people from across the world, such as France, Italy, Germany and India.

Appreciation: Appreciation plays a big part in our culture. We close off our week every Friday by giving ‘props’, which is recognizing employees for their contributions and accomplishments on projects, or something notable they’ve done that week. Anyone on the team can give ‘props’ to anyone else, which fosters an atmosphere of appreciation and teamwork.

Someone who noticed another employee doing a great job with a particularly difficult customer, might give ‘props’ to that person and recognize them in front of the group. Simple gestures like that greatly impact the team’s productivity and motivation.

Autonomy: Employees are a lot happier when they’re given the freedom to approach projects in their own way. Autonomy is therefore an important value at Badger. For us, it means the privilege to rethink things and processes, provide feedback and be heard. It allows everyone to try out new ways of getting work done, which is at the core of innovation.

We encourage everyone, including interns, to speak their mind, think about better ways to get things done, and work the way they want to work. By really listening to all employees, their jobs are more meaningful and rewarding, and we are able to create a better place for everyone to work.

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

Steve: To successfully employ millennials it’s important to recognize their struggles, challenges, and what is important to them outside of work just as much as for other stages in life.

I’ve hired a lot of millennials into entry level positions and I’ll hire even more in 2018 — they make up the bulk of our team. The key challenge to hiring and employing millennials successfully is that our education system has effectively failed them in terms of preparing them for careers in business.

Millennials tend to start out their careers lacking in both hard and soft skills that are relevant to the workplace. Schools aren’t teaching them these skills that they’ll need to thrive in general careers in business, but instead are focusing on training them for careers in academia or more focused vocations like teaching or accounting. For jobs in general business, they often find themselves feeling a bit out of place as they start their careers.

Therefore, the key to successfully managing millennials is to invest in training them. I interview millennials for entry level roles all the time who hardly understand what the role is, where it fits into the overall business, and why they would be a better fit for that role than others.

At Badger, I’ve developed a strategy of interviewing the person without the bias of a specific role in mind. I focus on finding the right fit for them in the organization once they join the team, instead of hiring them into a specific role.

We’ve built a ‘Career Personality Test’ that identifies what types of careers they would be good at. I figure out if they will be a good fit for our team in general, and then where they would be the best fit through getting to know them, what types of tasks they enjoy doing, and what they are good at. With this tactic, I’m able to uncover the role that is the right fit for them as an individual.

Millennials have some real advantages over other demographics, which allows them to do great if given the right opportunities and training. They’re great at figuring things out and are tech savvy. I also perceive them to be relatively comfortable with rapid change and quick to adjust which makes them a great fit for the fast pace of a startup environment. We have so many millennials thriving on our team because we’ve taken the time to create a program and environment that enables them to be successful.

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


· One great way to improve your company’s culture and build a strong sense of community is having regular team building activities.

At Badger, our favorite team building activity is Foosball. All of the Badger offices have a Foosball table that people enjoy playing — often in a highly competitive manner. When people go to different offices, they all have this shared hobby in common.

When your team has a sport or an activity that they can enjoy together it’s invaluable. It helps everyone get to know each other, deepens relationships, and gives people a way to blow off steam together. Foosball is a simple but surprisingly fun game. What is special about it is that it cuts across gender, culture, and natural physical ability, so that everyone can play it. The positive impact on team culture of having something that everyone can do together is hard to beat!

· Another way to enhance your culture is showing respect and appreciation for one another on a regular basis and recognizing employees for their work. This increases motivation and productivity and fosters a positive work environment.

One thing we do in our office is that we all set aside some time at the end of the day every Friday to ‘give props’. Anyone on the team can give ‘props’ to anyone else on the team, which fosters an atmosphere of appreciation, respect and teamwork. It’s a time to recognize coworkers for their accomplishments and contributions that week in front of the group and show them respect for working hard and having done something great. This might be that they’ve handled a difficult customer well, brought in a big deal or wrapped up a project successfully.

Giving ’props’ is just one of many ways to express appreciation. Often times, it’s the small and simple things like not interrupting your team members in meetings. It’s all about having the right mindset and making sure you always treat people the way you want to be treated.

Showing appreciation is crucial to creating a great company culture and it has helped us establish a strong community and positive environment where people enjoy working together and feel welcomed.

· Encouraging autonomy can also help improve your culture and work environment. At Badger, everyone, down to interns, is encouraged to join whatever projects they’re most interested at, or even lead projects. We have a lot of things that we have to get done, and I basically let people gravitate towards the areas they’re passionate about and want to contribute.

Every Monday we have a full team meeting for 15 minutes, and everyone who is running a project updates the group on where things are at and ask people for help where needed. People then join the projects they want to join, even if it’s outside their job description. If an engineer or an engineering intern wants to get involved in a marketing project, they’re encouraged to do so. If a salesperson or sales intern wants to get involved in a QA project, same thing.

One intern was interested in HR and came up with a complete strategy and HR program for us. She built it from the bottom up and launched it on her own. She could make all decisions in terms of how it should be set up and what it should contain autonomously while I was there as a guidance or if she had any questions.

We had one employee in Marketing who had a great idea about how we could improve our Sales training for new employees. He took on the project and set up a whole sales onboarding and training process based on his own ideas and insights from the sales team.

Getting people to work in and understand different parts of the organization is not only good for their development but also good for the company. This type of autonomy gives people the experiences that build their empathy for other departments, and helps the whole company function better.

· People are looking for more than just a high salary. They want to be happy with their job and work environment while developing a fulfilling career. Higher employee satisfaction improves your company’s culture, so it’s important to invest in your employees and keep them happy. Providing growth and development opportunities is a great way to increase employee happiness, motivation and productivity.

At Badger, I meet with each individual on a regular basis to ensure they’re being adequately challenged in their role and satisfied with their growth and career development. You need to know what your employees goals are, align their career accordingly and keep them motivated and engaged by enabling them to reach those goals.

I provide the information and knowledge they need to thrive in their role and help them develop through regular coaching, feedback, and one-on-one meetings. By showing your employees that you care about them, their career, and their future, you encourage a culture and environment of constant learning and growth where people can thrive in.

· Enhancing communication and collaboration throughout your company is another way to improve your culture and build a strong team.

There are a lot of great tools out there that provide platforms for efficient and easy communication and collaboration. Two apps we’ve found very helpful at Badger are Slack and Google Docs. 
 We use Slack for internal messaging and to stay connected with the different teams across our offices in Spain, San Francisco, Utah and the Philippines. It helps us to quickly communicate important updates, share files, and improve internal communication and employee engagement.
 To foster collaboration, we organize all documents and spreadsheets for our projects in Google Drive and sort them by department and topic. It makes it very easy for the whole team to work together and stay on top of project progress even if they’re not in the same office. Google Docs has helped us scale processes and work more efficiently as a team.

 Another way to encourage collaboration is to have meetings where people can interact in an unstructured way. The conversational feel is important for true collaboration to take place. It may feel more efficient to be highly structured and hit an agenda with a series of talking points, but that isn’t how people really engage. You should still have structure, but there also needs to be room for open conversations and brainstorming.

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?

Steve: Culture is an important concept because it makes or breaks the success of an organization. But it’s hard to put your finger on, which makes it challenging to get right.

One common struggle when trying to build a healthy culture is the increasingly dispersed workforce. It’s hard to have a satisfying culture and sense of community with remote employees because people are evolved to socialize in person to build trust and relationships.

There is an office culture, with inside jokes and small things that everyone gets. People who work from home can feel like they aren’t really a part of the team and of what goes on.

At Badger, we have a dispersed workforce across 3 continents, but we do our best to have a cohesive culture. One way we do that is having people from different offices visit and work out of the other offices for extended periods of time. The core of that program is sending people from our Headquarters in San Francisco to our office in Spain for 1 to 3 months.

Another challenge can be clear communication and fostering a positive culture from top to bottom of the organization. The leadership ultimately sets the cultural tone of the organization and speaks to the group the most. People naturally look to them for cues on how to behave, as different organizations have different norms. Just as a good leadership team can create a good, productive, supportive environment, a bad one can create a negative, counterproductive, and toxic environment.

A lot of companies also struggle because there is no clear recipe on how to build a strong and healthy culture. It’s different for everyone depending on their values and norms, and you just have to find what works best for you and the team you’ve built. It requires hard work and dedication to create a great culture and community.

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

Steve: The biggest mistake I’ve seen young founders make is that they don’t focus on creating a diverse culture from the early days on. Diversity plays a big role in fostering a great culture. If a business starts out lopsided and develops a dominant culture, it can be hard to unwind and become a place where people from various backgrounds can thrive in.

A lot of organizations look around after they’ve already grown fairly large and realize they are massively over-represented in some demographics and massively under-represented in others. It takes a lot of effort at that point to right the ship. If founders were cognizant of diversity from the beginning, they would not only have enjoyed the benefits of diversity throughout the companies entire life-cycle, but also would have a diverse organization at scale organically.

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?

Steve: Get a Foosball table for your office! It’s a great way for people to get to know each other, and helps build a fun and collaborative work environment. Whenever people need a break from work and want to clear their heads, they can grab a colleague (or 3 if you want to do 2 on 2) and play a couple games of foosball.

It has become invaluable to our culture at Badger and has encouraged a friendlier and more team-oriented workplace. When everyone feels welcomed and enjoys the each other’s company it can really improve the way teams work together and increase their productivity.

Also, showing appreciation as a group in the way I talked about before with giving “props” is great because it shares the responsibility of recognizing people with the whole team. First time CEO’s sometimes try to be everything to everyone, and it’s just not possible. By encouraging anyone on the team to recognize anyone else, it allows the group to better understand all the hard work everyone puts in and appreciate it.

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

Steve: My biggest influences have been my managers and the people who have worked on teams that I’ve lead throughout my career. I had various roles in big companies before I founded my own business, and my leadership style has changed a lot over time. In business school, we learned to set measurable goals for teams and I used to focus on these numbers. But I’ve learned that a great leader needs to focus on hiring, culture, and how to make the team more successful. This isn’t intuitive, but for a growing company, I feel like the main job of a leader is in the HR department — hiring, working to remove roadblocks, teaching and coaching the team.

At Google, I learned that being a good leader is less like a high school principal and more like a high school football coach. When I started to behave more like a teacher and mentor for my team and focused on making the people around me successful, it has also helped me and my business perform at our best.

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

Steve: The key to any complex relationship is communication. Someone who is a bad boss often just has a blind spot to what is going on, and that lack of understanding is causing them to develop processes and policies that aren’t in the best interest of the company or its employees.

Schedule a time to sit down with your boss and have a discussion on what’s going wrong. Be a resource to them as they think about how things can be done better.

That being said, there are a lot of ways a boss can be bad, that are outside of the scope here. That is one reason your company has an HR department.

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

Steve: At Badger, we have a very unique mindset and company culture. Half of the company’s purpose is to be a software company, the other half is to be an educational organization, that trains and develops our team and helps each individual reach their full career potential.

Our internal coaching and career development program has helped us increase employee satisfaction, motivation and productivity. It has enabled us to create a great culture where people can thrive in their roles, feel appreciated and enjoy coming to work.
What’s unique about the program is that employees are encouraged to take on different responsibilities than they were expected to when starting at the company. They can work on projects in different departments or even switch roles entirely if they identify another area of the business that is a better fit for them. People constantly change, grow in their position and are thus intrinsically motivated to give it their all.
This mindset of always learning and innovating really helped everyone grow together as a team, having the same vision of the company’s future and work together towards a common goal.

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 Steve Benson again!

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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.