GPTW: Learning from the best of the best

May 31, 2017
  Last week, I attended the Great Place to Work Conference in Chicago. This enormous and well-attended conference is hosted annually by the Great Place to Work (GPTW), which developed and publishes the 100 Best Companies to Work For list in Fortune magazine, among many other top workplace awards. 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the Fortune 100 Best List, and GPTW is using the milestone as an opportunity to reflect on what it truly means to be a great workplace. This reflection has helped GPTW to recognize that companies that land on the Fortune list are great places to work for MOST employees, but not necessarily for ALL. That’s why GPTW set out on a new mission to “make the world a better place by helping organizations be a great place to work for ALL.” Now, that’s a mission I can get behind! For those of you who didn’t make it to the conference, here are some key lessons learned from the best of the best workplaces:  
  1. Culture starts at the top.
One of my favorite speakers at the event was Cisco Chairman John Chambers. Cisco has been on Fortune’s list for as long as it’s been around, a fact that Chambers credits to the company’s strong culture. With more than 75,000 employees around the world, building and maintaining a unified culture of caring and support is no easy task – but Chambers emphasized that the effort must start at the top. “Your culture starts with the CEO. He or she has to believe in it, and has to live it every day.” Arden Hoffman, Global Head of People at Dropbox, got even more specific, sharing how Dropbox CEO Drew Houston uses a set of metrics called “Drew’s Reviews” to regularly check in on how the company is doing against a number of talent metrics that he considers important – things like diversity, engagement and attrition. By regularly reviewing these metrics with senior leaders, Drew is demonstrating what matters – and building the company’s culture around those values.  
  1. Sometimes the most valuable “perk” of all is simply saying, “Thanks.”
At a conference that included some of the world’s top employers, you might expect to hear about a whole host of workplace perks, from back-up childcare to paid time off for volunteering (and of course, I did hear about those!). But I was a bit surprised when Genentech (which has been a Fortune top 100 employer for 19 of the list’s 20 years) co-founder Herb Boyer said that the company’s strong culture is built on a foundation of appreciation. From Genentech’s earliest days, the company was built around respect for scientists’ hard work – giving them the time and space to explore and recognizing both accomplishments and failures when they happen. That culture of appreciation continues today, and extends beyond scientists to employees in all roles. Marcia Morales-Jaffe, Chief People Officer of PayPal, cautioned against recognizing employees simply for the sake of recognizing them. Rather, PayPal recently launched a spontaneous recognition tool called “Bravo!” built around the company’s values – what better way to demonstrate to employees what matters most to the company than by tying recognition to it?  
  1. Attracting top talent is harder than ever.
I realize it’s a total cliché, but like it or not, there was resounding agreement that the talent market is tighter than ever. And if companies deemed to be the nation’s best employers are struggling to attract top talent, what about the rest of them? Well, according to Jennifer Johnston, Head of Global Employer Branding & Recruitment Marketing at Salesforce, being thoughtful and intentional about employer branding is critical – and given that Salesforce is #8 on Fortune’s list, I’d say she knows what she’s talking about! Jennifer cautioned against companies trying to “game” employer branding – rather, to attract top talent, companies need a strong, well-defined employee value proposition that answers a few key questions:
  • Does the EVP reflect our core DNA as envisioned by our founders?
  • Does the EVP authentically represent who we are today?
  • Does the EVP represent who we aspire to be tomorrow?
  • Is the EVP unique to us vs. our competitors?
  • Is the EVP simple to remember and align on?
  1. Honesty and transparency matter most of all.
A surprisingly moving discussion came when AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson took the stage. He emphasized the importance of being honest and authentic, sharing his belief that the best way to build a strong and resilient culture is to encourage open dialogue, even around tough topics. In late 2016, Stephenson talked openly with employees about his personal journey to understanding racial tension and bias. He referenced candid conversations he had with a close black friend, who helped him gain a deeper understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s a difficult, tough issue,” he said. “But we have to start communicating, and if this is a dialogue that’s going to begin at AT&T, it probably ought to start with me.” It’s very uncommon for leaders at his level to show so much vulnerability, but it’s gone a long way in opening up the dialogue at AT&T about this and other uncomfortable topics that show up at work.
Ann Melinger

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