Laura Ching and the Culture Club: How Do You Build a Great Workplace?

Image representing Tiny Prints as depicted in ...

Tiny Prints via CrunchBase

Laura Ching of Tiny Prints has a thoughtful interview in this past Sunday’s New York Times; Corner Office: On Mondays, Look Forward to Coming In with reporter Adam Bryant.

Mostly the interview is about building a company and culture, and Laura’s got some advice that any company builder (and/or CEO) could use:

  • Spend time upfront. Abraham Lincoln saidIf I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.” Laura and her co-founders spent significant time (six months) vetting business ideas, culture and values before they moved forward. The impression of this upfront time, as my marketing wonk and colleague David Allen Ibsen might note, is that things were “thought over, not over-thought.”
  • Operationalize your cultural values. It’s great to say certain things (“Treat customers well“) but the rubber-meeting-the-road in company building is what happens when you’re in operation. Do you do what you say you believe, or do you do something different? My first job out of graduate school was working on the staff and faculty at USC, and eventually with Dr. Jeremy Stringer, who then ran the USC Office of Residential Life. Staff mailboxes (the old days, when everyone communicated by carbon based media) were by his office, and staffers could easily hear via an airshaft what Stringer was saying on the phone or in meetings when he had his door shut. The upshot? What Stringer said in public was markedly different than what he said in private. The result was that the culture he helped form was to be guarded, opaque, and political – all at odds with what he publicly said.
  • Size changes things. Ching notes that at around 80 employees Tiny Prints had to change the way they communicated throughout the firm. Ching notes that “we had to be more intentional.” My experience consulting/coaching with firms is that certain approximate size points – 14-30-50-150-300 – trigger at each step a rework of some employee communication and engagement basics. Most organizations unfortunately don’t catch the significance of size changes, and just try to do harder what had worked before; it just doesn’t work that way. And by the way, things like multiple locations, different time zones, and different working hours add complexity to the mix.
  • Culture is not a cookbook. Workplace culture is informed by a number of elements; founders, values that are practiced, employees you hire, the business you’re in and how you execute within that business. Tony Hsieh, founder of the highly successful Amazon acquisition Zappos, ran programs for people so they could build great companies just like Zappos. The problem, as it were, is that unless you’re Tony Hseih and starting an online shoe business, the ingredients won’t be the same. As noted in Paging Betty Crocker: Culture is not a Cake Mix, culture building and maintaining is an ongoing, iterative process. It’s more relationship, than transactional – not one and done. As Laura Ching notes, “We just like people who are up for the challenge of learning and growing.

There a zillion ways to start and grow a great company and workplace. Like a lot of things in life, a little thought – and the help of wise hands  as appropriate – can get you a long ways.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy ofKnowledgeCrush.

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