Posted March 22, 2022 by Mark Perna
The secret to a high-performance, high-retention culture isn’t adding more perks, but maximizing opportunities for people to learn from one another. Mark’s article, “How AirBnB, LinkedIn And Twitter Build Sticky Cultures That Employees Want To Work For,” published at Forbes.com on March 8, 2022.
Maintaining a positive culture based on shared understanding is becoming increasingly hard to do. Factors like growth, employee turnover and a shift to decentralized forms of working makes it a constant struggle to keep everyone on the same page. The risk is that the internal language, that cultural glue that keeps an organization running, can become fragmented. And when that happens, people might decide to look for work elsewhere.
With the Great Resignation or Great Reshuffle giving employees more options than ever about where they can work, it’s put a lot of pressure on organizations of all kinds to build the kinds of “sticky” cultures employees want to work for. Employees want to be personally and professionally invested in companies. They’re seeking purpose over paycheck and coaches rather than bosses.
It turns out that some of the secret “sticky” sauce is a culture where employees get opportunities to grow and learn—especially from each other.
Marko Gargenta, the founder of Twitter University and now CEO of PlusPlus, has seen how companies like Twitter, AirBnB and LinkedIn have tackled the Great Reshuffle by making peer-to-peer learning and career coaching a focus of their cultures.
“It’s been true since Plato founded The Academy in ancient Greece that people seeking mastery congregate together and through that create a community, which in turn becomes the culture,” he says. “The real magic of understanding how a company ticks can only come from peer-to-peer learning. We’re seeing this play out at innovative companies today.”
One of the biggest challenges to sticky cultures that most organizations face, even big tech companies, is the shift to remote work. Workers suddenly lack the regular human connection they were used to—which has also made it harder to create a culture based on peer-to-peer connections.
“We’ve created beautiful office spaces so that we can bring people together,” says Gargenta. “The open office was meant to increase serendipity and connect people. With remote work, employees feel isolated. This is extra hard for new hires who have not yet developed those social bonds.”
That’s created extra pressure on organizations to find solutions to help build those bonds despite the challenges presented by working remotely. Organizations need to both make it easy for experts to share their know-how and for new employees to access that knowledge—irrespective of either’s location.
“You’ll have a work culture either by chance or by choice,” says Gargenta. “So, even if you don’t do anything, a certain culture forms. Ideally, you designed it by choice. Then, you need to reinforce and reward that.”
One of the powerful ways any organization can invest in the growth and development of its people, even in the era of remote work, is to establish a career mentorship program. That’s especially true for younger-gen workers like Millennials, who crave clear opportunities for growth.
“Having a mentor is a relationship that can help everyone grow their career,” says Gargenta. “Mentorship is a way to ensure that employees are engaged, up to speed and comfortable within the culture.”
In Gargenta’s view, there are different kinds of mentoring programs. One of the simplest is a buddy or peer-to-peer-based system. “It helps new hires get oriented and indoctrinated into the culture,” he says. “This is a powerful tool when it comes to remote work.”
A second kind of mentoring is project-based, which helps employees get unblocked and through that do their best work—which can be a key driver for retention. As an example, at Airbnb—which focuses on ‘belonging through knowledge’—peer mentorship grew to include 10% (500 people) of their staff.
“They had hundreds of sessions booked in that first year and continue to do so,” says Gargenta. “They did it at scale, measured it and received remarkable results.”
The benefits of having colleagues share knowledge with each other flows two ways: learners can access real-world expertise, while more experienced hands can develop and build a profile as a source of knowledge. In other words, leaders and managers often love giving back and growing people—it allows them to shift from thinking like a boss to acting like a coach.
We’ve seen this in my own business where we invite team members into the decision-making process whenever possible. The result is everyone learns so much about how to navigate people, make smart decisions for the business and even handle disappointment and weather mistakes while taking the high road when others aren’t.
As another example, Shopify expanded their leadership mentoring program by hiring a team of full-time coaches to be available to everyone. Similarly, LinkedIn recently started rolling their mentorship top-down by encouraging the leadership team to take on more mentees.
“It’s a podium for them to share the things they care about most, inspire change and have them build camaraderie with their teammates in a helpful way,” says Gargenta. “At some organizations, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, the career ladder even says that the more senior you are, the more your job is to grow your people versus do the individual contributor work.”
Gargenta makes a strong case that peer-to-peer learning and career coaching enhances both shared understanding and company-building culture.
The more organizations invest in both personal and professional growth as a cultural norm—the type of culture that’s more connected, more engaged, and filled with teammates who want to grow within the company—the better the company will be at attracting and retaining the best talent to meet challenges now and beyond.
“While career coaching might be there to promote vertical development, it helps signal that such an organization cares about employees and as such is a great place to work,” he says. “That’s a powerful recruiting and retention brand for the company.”