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Tony Hsieh of Zappos once said: “For individuals character is destiny, for organizations culture is destiny.”

But building a culture worth talking about is easier said than done. And it is especially hard to maintain it when your business grows fast and fierce. This has been a vital concern for many accomplished entrepreneurs from Mark Zuckerberg to Steve Jobs to James Dyson.

Everyone talks about Zappos, their amazing ethos, flat management structure, and success that was years in the making. But Zappos is one of very few companies that could actually build a culture where people truly thrive and thousands line up in hopes of being a part of something different. It is hard to find a long list of businesses like that, large or small.

One such business is located in the heart of Portland, OR, and is co-founded and run by two forward-thinking women. I’ve heard praises sung to the digital advertising agency Swift for a little while, and recently met up with the founders when I visited their offices.

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Left to right: Liz Valentine, CEO, Maren Elliott, Chief of Staff, Alicia McVey, Chief Creative Officer.

What makes Swift stand out? Besides their unprecedented low turnover, unsolicited employee testimonials about company culture, and the fact that in 7 years of existence they haven’t made a single sales cold call while growing 100% year on year, the business is co-founded by women with 70% of their 80-people employee base being female. Swift quietly lets the work—and their roster—speak for itself: Nike, Starbucks, Nestle, Disney, HTC, and REI.

The two founders at the heart of it all, Liz Valentine and Alicia McVey, decided to start their own agency after being introduced by a mutual friend. Both had worked at lucy Activewear at different times. Liz was Director of eCommerce and Alicia a Creative Director. Their skills and beliefs matched perfectly. Between them they had years of experience working for and with Nike, Forrester Research, Pepsi, Liz Claiborne and others.

So what makes this company’s culture so special? And what can others learn from that?

Define Your Values and Display Them Center-Stage

Swift has grown fast, so the leadership team decided to go through the exercise of documenting their foundational values which they share formally with each new employee, as well as prominently display on their office walls (see the picture above). This “Swiftology” spans everything from their work ethic to their choice in snacks.

They believe:

  • It all starts with a great story
  • The best idea can come from anywhere
  • In the Power of every person
  • Where we work creates great work
  • Relationships are everything
  • Think big but sweat the small stuff
  • You should always bring something to the party
  • Humor is essential
  • Substance over style, although style counts a lot
  • We work best together
  • Great work takes grit
  • In Red Wines and Red Vines
  • Get it wrong to get it right
  • In unexpected destinations
  • We are part of something bigger

Create a Physical Environment That Fosters Collaboration

Part of building a productive culture meant creating an open physical environment that fosters collaboration and creativity. Every wall is a white board, there are a dozen living rooms, and long community tables in the kitchens bring people together throughout the day. They have a ping pong table and an indoor archery range so that employees can take a break and have fun together. And on one of their walls you can see a 9 foot, hot-pink neon heart representing their overarching philosophy: We Love What We Do.

Establish Traditions

One of their staff’s favorite Swift traditions is Friday Community Lunch where they bring in a big meal for the team and all come together to eat and drink.  They host yoga twice a week in their “Shed,” have a bowling team and archery club, as well as host a March Running Challenge.

Realize that Work Family Is Not the Only Family

Employees are allowed to bring their dogs to work. I personally witnessed an adorable lab, Gemma, helping herself to an employee’s lunch. Luckily, everyone was good-natured about it. Someone commented with a smile: “That’s why we eat on the bar stool in the common area, so Gemma can’t reach.”

Kids of employees stop by to say hi or have lunch from time to time. And this year the company started the Culture Club, which is a volunteer group of staff members who plan events and outings.

Not only that, the company covers 100% of health insurance costs for every single employee. Sign me up!

No-Nonsense Hiring

“You are only as good as your team, so hire carefully,” says Liz. “All prospective Swift employees go through several interviews before they’re asked to complete a test project and present it to a panel. Then, we give them feedback, see how they respond and evolve their work. We’re also laser focused on culture fit. Is there a natural chemistry? Do they have a sense of humor? In the interview process do they reference the importance of team work and collaboration? Big egos have no place at Swift!”

Incorporate Ongoing Leadership Feedback and Training

The company has an anonymous suggestion box for people to leave the leadership team feedback and suggestions. It is sincerely welcomed and a great way for the management team to get honest opinions from the staff and ensure that they are continuing to evolve their culture and business while staying true to their foundational values.

The company developed a management training workshop that focuses on what they’ve found are the core tenants of strong managers, including understanding their role as a manager and operating with leadership, delegating work effectively, giving feedback successfully and fostering professional growth.  All new managers at Swift go through this training, even if they’ve managed elsewhere.

Allow Yourself to be Picky When Taking On New Work

“We get anywhere from 10-15 RFPs a month so we have to be selective about what we respond to,” says Liz Valentine. “Once we get an RFP it comes down to one simple question: ‘Is this a brand and a project that we can get excited about?’ If the answer is yes, we’ll do amazing work.” And doing amazing work is what gets the company a continuous flow of great referrals. Sometimes saying no is the best way to help focus a team on delivering their very best for the clients they already have.

In conclusion, I asked Liz why she thought so many people wanted to work for Swift. Here is what she said:

“It is:

  • The work: The work is amazing. We are responsible for driving digital and content strategy for some of the world’s most beloved brands. We have longstanding client relationships full of trust that allow us to take risks and produce incredible results for them.
  • The people: What I hear most often from everyone is that they love their team members. We recently did an internal survey on Swift culture and a common theme was that Swift felt like a family. We have put a lot of energy into hiring smart, creative, dedicated people who have diverse interests and everyone genuinely enjoys working together.
  • Collaboration: This is a buzzword that is often overused, but I hear repeatedly that people love how collaborative we are at Swift.  Ego doesn’t thrive at Swift. Great ideas can come from anywhere regardless of how long someone has been here or their level of seniority.
  • The professional opportunities: We know that professional growth and advancement isn’t always linear; that employees may want to explore other talents that are outside of their immediate job duties and we make every effort to facilitate that growth by giving stretch assignments and allowing people to take on a lot of responsibility early in their careers.”

Sounds easy, right? Well, it isn’t. But it’s worth putting extra thought and effort in building the culture that is more than just a poster on the wall. Your employees will appreciate it. And your bottom line will reflect it.

Originally posted in Forbes

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