How to Create a Great Place to Work for All – At a Smaller Business

by Michael Bush

5 min read

One of my favorite success stories when it comes to smaller companies is WP Engine and its remarkable, reach-everyone CEO Heather Brunner.

You may not have heard of WP Engine, a 450-person Austin, Texas company that helps customers build and run websites on the WordPress platform. But you may have visited a site powered by WP Engine – or may do so in the near future.

In four years, WP Engine grew tenfold. Now, 5 percent of web users visit a WP Engine site every day, and the company is closing in on 100,000 customers in 140 countries around the globe.

What’s the secret to the growth? It has everything to do with how Brunner and her team have built a Great Place to Work For All.

My organization, Great Place to Work, named WP Engine as a Best Workplace for Millennials earlier this year in one of the rankings we publish with our partner FORTUNE magazine. And it’s not surprising that WP Engine’s employees rate them so highly on our Trust Index survey when you hear about how Brunner leads the company.

For example, she rejected the rhetoric that tech firms can’t find enough good talent—and she did so by throwing the door open wider. When Brunner joined WP Engine in 2013 and the company was taking off, she ended the practice of requiring job applicants to have a four-year college degree. It was a risky decision, since 69 percent of U.S. employers make college degrees mandatory for entry-level jobs. But that criterion presents a major barrier to entry for underprivileged, and often minority, swaths of the population.

Now, one-third of WP Engine employees don’t have a college degree. New hires have come, in part, from coding academies and non-degree training programs.

“We can let a lot more people come to the table and basically change the trajectory of their careers,” Brunner said at our annual conference earlier this year. “If you have the work ethic, if you match our culture, if you want to be a servant leader in terms of your style of how you work, and you’re willing to come in and work hard and do the training that you need . . . we’re willing to invest in you and bring people in. This has been game-changing for us.”

She and her team have changed the game on company financials as well. WP Engine trains all employees to be financially literate and uses open-book management. This starts in the new-hire orientation, where CFO April Downing teaches all new employees how to read the company’s financials, what the key performance indicators are, and more. From then on, all employees receive monthly financial updates and have a clear understanding of how their efforts directly impact key metrics such as growth and customer retention.

Brunner gets how important a great, For All culture is to small businesses and their growth.

What about you? You may be a small business leader who thinks it is inherently good to create a great workplace for all your people, and to have those good vibes ripple out to make for a better society. Super. For All clearly is for you.

Maybe you are more hard-nosed about your business. If so, you still ought to build a For All culture. Because these cultures are better for business. They are what’s needed in the emerging digital, decentralized economy, where the winning companies maximize every ounce of human potential. WP Engine’s story is backed by research we’ve done showing that the small and medium companies with the most trust in their cultures—the ones that make our Best Small and Medium Workplace lists—have three times the revenue growth of contending firms.

Our research also shows that great cultures are great talent magnets. Barely anyone (1.5%) plans to stay with a small company if it isn’t a great place to work. Creating a Great Place to Work in a small company (< 100 employees) makes people 63x more likely to plan to stay.

What’s more, our latest research shows that the most “For All” organizations—the ones with the most consistent employee experience – have much better revenue growth compared to less-inclusive rivals and outperform the stock market by a wide margin.

So how do you create a Great Place to Work For All at a smaller company?

It starts with you as a leader. And with your beliefs. Are you open-minded enough to recognize that culture isn’t soft, fuzzy stuff but a measurable business asset? One that can give you a competitive advantage? For example, our research shows that as an organization grows, the culture aspects most likely to suffer are:

  • Employee confidence in executives
  • Participation in innovation
  • Trust in managers to make fair promotions

And yet these factors are associated with revenue outperformance—it can crimp your growth if your culture craters. What’s more, the workplace features that drive retention change as organizations grow. Employees at small firms care more about community, about being in a friendly, caring environment. But as organizations grow larger, camaraderie recedes as a retention driver. In its place is purpose. Employees want to make a different and take pride in what they do.

Beyond your willingness to work on culture, there are some other key leadership behaviors:

  1. Hire slowly but fire quickly. Your people make up your culture just as you do. It’s vital to take the time to get the right people. And to realize that those who don’t fit can ruin the workplace for everyone.
  2. Be honest, be as transparent as you can be, be inspiring. These days, authenticity is expected not only by Millennials but by people of all ages. Transparency—whether you go as far as the open-books approach of WP Engine or not—is a key sign of respect. And it is up to leaders to motivate with a compelling vision.
  3. Listen to your employees – informally, formally and fairly. It’s easy to get around to hear all perspectives when you’ve got 50 or fewer people. But pretty soon systems are need to capture your employees’ views—crucial to understanding how you as a leader should act. And leaders must take pains to be accessible to all people, including those from historically under-represented groups.

As an entrepreneur and leader of my own small business (Great Place to Work has about 85 U.S. employees), I face many of the challenges you do. I know there are a million important things competing for your attention. How to grow revenue, which new products or services to invest in, how to see past the business horizon for new opportunities and threats.

Amid all these issues, I urge you to make culture a priority. It’s much harder to fix later on if you neglect it now.

Small companies, like WP Engine, are the engine of our economy and our societal well-being. I salute all of you doing the work you do. And I invite you to join our mission to create a world of For All organizations by 2030. Will you help us rocket to that goal?

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