On Culture | By Bryan Miles, Belay

A lot of people confuse culture with a company’s external characteristics — a ping-pong table in the breakroom, flip-flops and longboards cruising the hallways. And while these things might be expressive of an organization’s culture, they aren’t culture in and of themselves.

To me, culture is the force which rallies ordinary people around a shared and extraordinary goal. A cohesive culture can bring people together regardless of age, background, or beliefs, to accomplish something much greater than themselves. It is the framework which unifies and guides the actions of a group.

Which might sound pretty rosy and romantic, but in practice, culture is tricky.

At BELAY, we have a very strict “no gossip” policy. And by strict, I mean no exceptions, no excuses. That policy is a central tenant of our culture, and for culture to actually carry weight, it has to be consistent. And because of that, we’ve actually had to let otherwise fantastic people go for breaking that policy just once.

It’s not about being authoritarian or vindictive. It’s about understanding that culture defines everything we do, and it is only in sharing in that culture that we can truly reach our goals.

One of the biggest mistakes a leader can make is thinking that they’re somehow exempt from that sharing. A leader that doesn’t “walk the walk”, so to speak, is the easiest and most effective way to undermine a culture.

As a leader, you can’t ask people to do things that you wouldn’t do yourself. If you are unwilling to abide by and uphold the culture you promote, then you can’t expect anyone else to. That includes big stuff like following the employee code of conduct, and the little things like demonstrating gratitude and being patient. As a leader, you can’t just speak culture into existence. You have to will it into being, every single day, through action.

In the case of our no-gossip policy, that kind of intentionality can be challenging. But there’s another side to that coin.

We recently hired a woman who had been looking for work for a long time. One night, she was lying in bed with her husband and browsing through job listings on her tablet. When she came upon BELAY’s website, she turned to her husband and said, “I’m done looking for work.”

He was a little confused at first, but she explained that she’d found the place where she wanted to work, and nothing else would do. Nine months later, she joined BELAY.

Her story is pretty exceptional, but it illustrates one of the main reasons why culture matters — not many places have it. By establishing a consistent, meaningful culture, BELAY attracts the kind of passionate employees that most organizations can only dream of. And once they’re here, they stay.

This year, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked BELAY number one among all small companies for top company culture. My mom told me I should never gloat, but that ranking is something I’m incredibly proud of. To me, it’s worth far more than bombshell quarterly earnings or major contract acquisitions. It shows that the people we work with, and the people we serve, find meaning in what we do that goes beyond our earnings.

It’s also a testament to the fact that culture isn’t bound by geography. As a 100% remote organization, BELAY has had to invest extra effort into establishing and cultivating our culture. But with the power of modern technology — and a little bit of creativity — we’ve been able to overcome the challenges.

In addition to our bi-annual summits, we also enjoy the occasional “virtual happy hour”, and always prioritize video calls over voice. Most importantly, though, we remain clear and intentional about our culture, and trust one another to uphold it.

I’m confident that, as long as we continue to prioritize culture, the rest will come naturally.