Ep #57 | Curating Company Culture

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Josh Sweeney is the founder of EpicCulture, whose mission is to help businesses build an amazing company culture. He has a deep understanding and ability to utilize hiring process and behavior analytics to create business environments that people enjoy working in. Josh is a long-standing member of the Entrepreneurs Organization and served 5 years on the EO Atlanta Board before moving into a regional role. He has worked with and coached hundreds of entrepreneurs through the EO Accelerator and LaunchPad programs.

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Shantel: Hey Josh, welcome to the Imagine More Podcast. 

Josh: Hey, thanks for having me.

Shantel: Of course. We're excited to learn more about EpicCulture and how you got started. I suppose to kick things off, do you want to tell our listeners a little bit more about who and what is EpicCulture?

Josh: Sure, so Epic Culture is all about building amazing company cultures. So we believe that people shouldn't spend eight, nine, 10 hours a day, however much time it takes to not only get ready for work and drive back and forth and be at work, you know, we don't believe that those people should spend all this time at a place that they don't thoroughly enjoy and love. And so we help companies build these amazing environments and put processes into place to build the culture in the company that will lead to highly productive outcomes for everyone. 

Shantel: That's amazing. So when did you start the company? 

Josh: This actually just got going recently. It's been something that's been on my mind for a while, and I actually used a lot of the processes that we built and a lot of the behavior analytics and tools that we have in my last company.

Shantel: That's neat. Well, tell us a little bit, so paint a picture. Were you always a young entrepreneur and always wanted to start your own company? What was the first business? Just a quick screenshot of kind of who is Josh and how did you get started? 

| AN ENTREPRENEUR FROM THE BEGINNING |

Josh: Yeah, so I would say that I was a young entrepreneur. I grew up in a household where you received gifts on your birthday and Christmas, and if you wanted anything outside of that, then you needed to go figure out how to make money. So I remember pushing a lawnmower, raking leaves, basically anything that I could do, probably ... maybe recall back to being seven years old knocking on doors seeing if I could rake people's leaves to make more money and be able to buy the things that I want or whatever it might be, outside of the normal holidays. And I think that progressed and grew as I got older. So shortly, or actually during college, I had a telecom company. During high school I did some web design, and it just evolved from there, and the companies got bigger, and learned more about employing others and being a job creator, and everyone gets progressively bigger and allows me to learn more and more. 

Shantel: That's amazing. Was there a tipping point or something that really stood out to you that made you want to start this company in particular focused around culture? 

Josh: I think it was a culmination of multiple things. Years ago, I had the opportunity to work for a startup. They were at about 100 people, they were funded, and they just had this amazing environment. And I had worked for a few companies before then, and when I went in and saw what work could really be like, I wanted to replicate that. So some examples there was it was a very work hard play hard culture, so people would stay late, they would hit deadlines. Their hiring process made sure that they had the best of the best. I really felt like I was working with the best of the best. But then we also played hard, so when we had company events, they were a blast. The company didn't really hold back, right? They paid for everything and made it well worth it, so I think it was a good give and take. I saw that happen, and then when I had my own company, I got an understanding of how hard that was to replicate. It's a lot of work to replicate the hiring processes that get amazing people and A players into the organization. It's a lot of focus and effort to make sure that things are happening on a repeatable cycle, whether it's company events or recognition, or anything else that goes into having an amazing culture that people want to work in. So, my thought was, well how do we make that happen for other people? Maybe other companies don't naturally have that habit or have those tendencies, but they see it and they know they want it, and they can leverage our team to make that happen. 

Shantel: That's great. You mentioned that you felt like you were the best of the best, and I think just learning more about A players and just the mentality behind that of ... you will lose employees if they are not around other A players, because they will not tolerate being around B or C players, which I think is really fascinating and certainly important for every company to continue to strive to hire those people. 

Josh: Yeah, that's definitely the case, 'cause fast forward a little while later, that company I worked for got acquired by a Fortune 500, and over the next six months after that acquisition, most people were gone, and it was just a totally different dynamic. The hiring process was much different, it was much broader and easier to get a job in the environment then, and you started to get other people that you didn't feel like were on the same level as the group that we had pre-acquisition. And that definitely made a difference. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. Do you have a team right now, Josh, for EpicCulture?

Josh: We do. So there's three people right now, with me as the founder. 

Shantel: Okay. Can you talk a little bit and share without giving away all your secrets about how do you find the right fit for your team as you're growing? 

Josh: So, one of the things that we do, one of the things we train on and that we do, is finding people and starting off with culture match, so culture questions. So what a lot of people end up doing is they post out a job, and when they post that opening that they have, they take in all of this information and they start a process around the interview. They may jump to the interview, they may jump to a phone call. It goes into that interview process. And what we recommend people do is start off with a culture question or a set of culture questions. So as soon as a resume comes in to EpicCulture or one of the companies that we work with, they automatically get an auto-response that says, "Hey, fill out these five questions." And those five questions are the same no matter what role you're working or applying to, all because those questions tell us whether you do or do not fit the culture of our business. So we're really able to filter people out in a quick way. An example of that would be, if we get 100 applications for a job, when we send out those culture questions, we will maybe only get 30 responses. So we filter out people immediately who just aren't willing to put in the work. And then of those 30% or 30 responses in this case that have answered the questions, we're usually able to narrow down and cut another 10 people out of that process. So we're left with 20 of the top candidates for that position before we go through an in to the rest of our hiring process. And so that's just one trick that we really like to automatically filter people out. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. We do something similar, which we've talked about offline about, but it's really fascinating. We send a lot of people to a one-way video interview, and we probably get 10% of applicants back just to fill that out, and it really does help cut out those back to back phone calls if you were having preliminary calls first, because everyone will hop on a call. It's very low risk or low lift for them. But just kind of making it a little bit tougher really shows you who is so eager and not just blasting out their resume.

Josh: Oh, most definitely. Yeah, if you add steps, you see who's committed and who's really interested in the position that they applied for, versus they're just out hitting the apply button hundreds of times and hoping something comes back. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. So, when I think culture, I think the first thing that I think of, and I'm so thankful that we learned this early on and really implemented it, but is core values. And I think what I really appreciate is not just having these words that are hung up on a wall that are not at all integrated into the company, but really feeling them, talking about them ... they're such a part of the organization that it would be so transparent if one of those core values was being broken. Do you feel that core values are the basis of a strong culture? 

Josh: I definitely do. I've worked at a number of companies, and until maybe even the last few years, I'd worked at organizations where the values were on the wall, but you never really heard about them, right? It was something that somebody wrote long ago, and they were up on the wall and they were very vague and broad, and they just didn't help in any way. In the last few years, I've really started to dig down into how those values affect people, and see them working in action. So, I think they have a huge impact as long as the organization writes values that are unique to them, and also utilizes those in calls and meetings and reinforces those core values. So I was in a meeting with an organization not too long ago, and they call them out during their quarterlies. So they'll have a quarterly all hands meeting, and they highlight people that exhibited those core values. They give out rewards and they incentivize people based on them. So when you use them in that way, you really get to feel the core values and know that they're part of the business. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. And you mentioned, so they have to be true to your brand. So when EpicCulture is working with a client or a new customer on perhaps defining those if that's part of what you guys do, how do you suggest people start, or do you just Google, "Synonyms for nice, and caring," or how would you suggest companies and listeners that are starting a business go about creating authentic core values?

Josh: I like to start off with the culture and ... or the feeling of the business. Like when I go in, what do I feel? What are people naturally doing? And depending on the size of the business, that can vary. So if it's a smaller entrepreneur-led business, then a lot of times those values come from that entrepreneur, and they're hiring other like-minded individuals or people with similar values. In a larger organization, you have to take other tactics such as maybe doing surveys and seeing what do the other people in the organization, what do the team members think are their values, and then somebody has to whittle those down and figure out which ones are good, which ones are not a match, which ones reflect the organization, and they take a different process. So I've seen it come about different ways, but there's a lot of discovery that happens and some deep reflection into who you really are.

Shantel: Mm-hmm. Yeah and I agree. When we were putting those on paper, what was helpful for us is we also kind of felt who we were not. We were not stuffy or we were not this, and then it helped us come up with, well okay, then that means that we are this. And it was really important and I think a good exercise for us. We brought in the A players on the team, because we were like, we want more of you, and so if we can kind of extract those ... what is a core value of yours that you really bring to the table and help elevate the team, that was a really neat exercise for us. 

Josh: Yeah, I like the idea of saying what you're not, because you should in theory then be the inverse of that in a lot of ways, and maybe that can be ... it sounds like it would be a really good exercise. 

Shantel: Yeah. So I want to switch gears a little bit to you're starting this new company, and I imagine sometimes leadership is not either ... they're running in a lot of different directions or wearing a ton of hats, and maybe they're not bought in, or, quite frankly, which is horrible to think about, but what if some people don't care about the culture, because they're maybe not in it every day, or something or another. How do you get that leadership buy-in for you to really make a mark in a company? Or do you have to have their buy-in if it's really gonna work for you guys from the beginning? 

Josh: So when we're working with somebody specifically?

Shantel: Yeah, or when you're prospecting or someone reaches out and is interested, but then you meet the rest of the team and you're like, oh, they're not ready for it. 

| MAKING THE CULTURAL SHIFT |

Josh: Yeah, so we have to work with them to identify are they ready for a cultural shift and what does that mean, and who's really gonna lead that. So I actually just had lunch with another entrepreneur the other day, and they had acquired a company, and they were gonna go in and grow this organization at a very rapid rate. And the existing culture is not what would get them to the new place that they wanted to be, and they recognized that very early. So there's gonna have to be some very hard conversations that happen with the leaderships, and sometimes in a larger organization, that has to be a shift over time, and it's almost a change management process. So you identify where you want to go and where you want to end up from a culture perspective, and then you have to decide how you want to get there. And the larger organizations, sometimes that's going to be a one, two, three-year project to get there. Sometimes people are willing to let go of existing employees that don't match, and hire new people that match that culture in order to make that shift happen a lot faster. And I think whether it's faster or over a period of time is really based on the risk level and the type of leadership that you're dealing with. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. How do you suggest companies, if you're open to sharing, measure culture and culture health, I mean outside of I imagine just retention? Do you have any other techniques that you suggest?

Josh: Yeah, you mentioned retention, which is a good one, so is your retention getting better over time? Are people staying longer? I think surveys are a big part of it, and what I see a lot of the times are a survey that goes out around, do you feel that we are meeting these goals, right? So if you have certain initiatives around culture, maybe it's you want to get more A players, you want people to feel like they're working with better teammates than they might have had a year ago. Well, those are all questions that can be asked either in a survey or in some sort of monthly, quarterly check-up. And then the other ways are a more broad survey around how much value are they getting. So there's a lot of incentives and other items that people can rank based on what they see as an incentive, and they can rank them one to five and you can see a trend line over time. 

Shantel: I love that. We started using a program called 15Five. Have you heard of it? 

Josh: Yeah, I have heard of that. 

Shantel: It was interesting. So you can ask a different question every week. One of the questions that we actually just recently asked is, on a scale of one to 10, how enthusiastic are you thinking about ... or something along the lines of how excited are you to come to work? And I felt like it was very similar to the NPS, the net promoter score concept, and I felt like, okay, the nines and 10s were good. The nines were just they're tough raters and will never give anything a 10, and then the 10s were great. But we got a couple eights, and they were immediately red flags for me. And that's the lowest we scored, but I still felt like, ooh, something ... they hesitated. Anyway, it was really an interesting question for us, and something to reflect a little bit like, well, why do we think they are, and to follow up. But I love kind of surveying, so I think that's great.

Josh: Yeah, I love the net promoter score type of analogy, 'cause you're just turning it inward and making it super simple and saying, this is something any employee can click really quickly. There's not much that has to go into initiating that on your part or on the organization's part or on their part to fill out, and you immediately have a glimpse of what's going on. So I definitely think that's an easy way to track the success.

Shantel: Mm-hmm. So far, so good. We're trying.

Josh: Have to work on our, right?

Shantel: Yeah. So, starting this new business, and I imagine, yes, all companies have cultures. Have you been intentional about trying to find a niche for your business? You know, who is that right client for you? Are you targeting everyone? What is your thought process behind that? 

Josh: What we've found so far is that they're normally gonna have to have at least an HR person. Normally these are 20 plus person businesses, and they go up to mid-size companies from there, so it could go up to hundreds of employees. I wouldn't say we're gonna work with a thousand person plus, that's probably not really our sweet spot. Have a lot of experience with entrepreneur led companies and working with the visionaries in those organizations of various sizes, and I think that at some point, they have to have a willingness to commit to having a portion of somebody's time, whether it's an office manager or an HR person's time, either 25% of their time, or up to a full-time resource that's focused around culture. I really like to lock in that that's culture, not HR. Now, it could be an HR person, but if they're willing to commit 25% of that person's time to what you would consider non-traditional HR items, what we would call culture items, then I think that's the point in which we can get involved and really help out. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. That's great. So you have been really kind of trying to be focused on who is that right client for you. 

Josh: Most definitely, and we're trying to narrow that down and find the sweet spots over time. So it's not anybody, but I think even when you're starting with one person, you need to start thinking about, you know, if you're just now launching a company and it's just you or you and your co-founder, you have to start building that now and you have to start thinking about what you want the culture to be, 'cause the smaller teams have even more impact with a hire. When you get that third person, they can dynamically change it for better or worse, and so you still want to build with intent, but that's probably a place in which you're gonna have to take most of the imitative on that. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. I thought it was really interesting. I spoke with ... do you know Mike from Dagger?

Josh: I don't. 

Shantel: He was just recently on the podcast, so we'll be sure to hyperlink, but he talked a little bit about hiring and his role on the team, and he mentioned that any person that is being interviewed, if they are kind of in that final round, they have something called something along the lines of a culture committee, and someone from that committee or the entire committee if they're available, they are that last person that interviews the prospective candidate, and they have final say. So no matter what, if they're like, they're not a culture fit, it completely ... they're off the table at that point, which I thought was really interesting as well, is having someone kind of dedicated to culture, and then being that flagship person that has that say. So it doesn't always just fall on leadership, really the whole team feels like someone's got their back in regards to culture ... which I thought was interesting. 

Josh: Yeah, I like the idea. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm.

Josh: Yeah, I like the idea of having somebody that has that final say so, 'cause it shows a lot of commitment to the people that you're gonna be bringing in. So it's not only good for the organization, but when you're conveying that message to a potential employee, I think that that gives them a great feeling that this is what they're gonna get in their colleagues in the future. So they know that you're really focused on employees and values and other things that would lead to a place that they would want to come into, and it's a great strategy. 

Shantel: Mm-hmm. What do you think about Glassdoor?

Josh: I can't say that I've used it a whole lot, so I mean, I've checked some of the numbers here and there, but I wouldn't say that I've dug down into it for any particular purpose. What have you found useful on there? 

Shantel: Well, I don't know. We just get pinged if anyone leaves a review, and people will leave reviews on your interview process ... My goal as a business owner is to make sure that I have the best team and we're doing the best work, and so it's always hard to hear if someone didn't get a job and is disgruntled and angry and leaves a Glassdoor review about it. So I just was curious if anything with Glassdoor is tied to the EpicCulture's strategy as you guys are talking to businesses, especially during that interview process.

Josh: It's not, but I think that would be something interesting for me to look at and dig into. I think it's definitely a challenge, because if somebody's not getting a position or was turned away for a position and they're disgruntled by it, then that's something that you have to handle, but your process is supposed to filter people out. If your hiring process is good, then you're going through a lot of resumes and you're really filtering it down to the perfect fit. So you've filtered out that person for probably a good reason. The flip side would be, is it a legitimate gripe? So I had somebody ask me the other day, "What's an interview that you've gone into or been a part of that was a flop?" And I had to think about it, but I remember I had to think back probably 10 year ago, I went in for an interview with a company, and it was kind of an opportunistic interview. The company did the same thing that the current company I was at was doing, and I interviewed with the CTO, and he was very relaxed and like looking at the ceiling half the time. He was giving me this vibe that he didn't want to be there, you know? That this wasn't an interesting interview or he didn't want to be there or he was just disengaged. So to me, that's probably a valid gripe to put on Glassdoor, whereas not getting the job, you know, I think it probably just reflects more on them than the company they were interviewing with. So there's definitely some validity to it, but I'd like to take a look more and see what else they offer. 

Shantel: Yeah. That is interesting. It's a little bit selfish, and hopefully the listeners will understand in what direction it's coming from, but ... so my personality as a business owner, I am type A, I move really quick, and so it's very difficult for me to celebrate the wins and kind of relax and celebrate with the team, and do the stuff that I know is so important for the culture, but it just does not come naturally to me at all. And so I imagine some of the leadership that you're working with and the companies you're working with maybe they feel the same, or people listening can relate to some degree. But do you have any suggestions for me, and/or anyone that can relate, on how to just kind of really embrace the culture and not feel like you have to just continue moving on to the next thing? 

| FIND A TEAMMATE TO LEAD CULTURE |

Josh: Yeah, it's really interesting you bring it up, 'cause we're starting a new video series, the EpicCulture video series, where we're interviewing, we're going on site with organizations, and we're interviewing them about their culture and what they do, and getting lots of ideas on how they build that out so they can share with the rest of the world and other business owners and leaders that want to build amazing cultures. So I was interviewing Jon Ostenson with 10Xfive, and we're on video, and he came out and said it. "I like to have fun, I want an amazing culture, but I'm not the guy who really thinks about and drives that." I told him, it was really the same way for me. I have a similar personality style to you, where I want those things, I enjoy them, but I'm not the best at coordinating them, and I'm not the best at remembering each one and getting them on the calendar. So what I've seen as a strategy, and what I think the best strategy is, is find somebody in your team that's amazing at it. They're somebody that can commit 25% of their time or a portion of their time, and they're somebody who really wants to do that and enjoys it, and it's gonna have a great impact on your team because they can communicate it and schedule and take care of everything, and then that helps it all come together. So, I like the idea of finding somebody on the team that can really lead that and loves to take those types of actions. 

Shantel: That's great advice. Thanks. Thanks for sharing that.

Josh: Yeah.

Shantel: So I know you've owned multiple businesses and this is another venture for you. At this stage in your career, is there anything that keeps you up at night anymore, or has it all become ... you've had that experience and you've realized you've survived so it's all okay? 

Josh: I think it would be the second. There's not a lot that keeps me up at night. I'm fairly ... I'm okay with risk. I'm used to the risk, I have a personality profile, I have a high level of risk-taking, and so I wouldn't say it keeps me up at night. I mean, there are definitely stressful situations that we get into as business owners, but for the most part, it has always worked out for the better. So every setback I've had has led me to the next phase, and I just trust in that process and keep hitting it hard and grinding every day, and as long as I don't sit back and rest on that and I'm always driving forward, it always works out for me. 

Shantel: Fair enough. That's good. It's not fun to toss and turn. 

Josh: Yeah. How about for yourself? Something keeping you up? 

Shantel: No, I mean, we're in the midst of hiring, so I think just the stress of trying to find some new teammates when the team really needs the help is something that ... and also, it needs to be a priority, but I'm wearing a lot of other hats in business development and things like that, so I suppose I'm not losing sleep over it, but it is certainly a very stressful time to be hiring and recruiting. I haven't been asked that question recently, so thanks for kicking it back. 

Josh: Yeah, no problem. 

Shantel: Okay, just a couple more questions to wrap things up, Josh. Speaking to our listeners, small business owners or starting a business, what would be the most valuable piece of advice that you could give them around company culture? 

Josh: That's a great question. I think I would flip back to what I said earlier, is build it with intent from the beginning. Go do that research right out of the gate and know who you do and don't want on the team, because that second, third, fourth hire has a significantly larger impact on the culture than the hundredth hire, right? The hundredth hire, a lot of that's set already, and one person you can have churn and other things happen and it's not as big of a deal. But early on, you want to build that culture with intent and make sure that you're hiring based on the values that you have and the values that you want to have in the organization for the long-term. 

Shantel: That's great advice. What's next on the horizon for EpicCulture? 

Josh: So the biggest challenge I have right now is I've never shot video before, I've never done a podcast, and I'm actually a big fan of Gary and a lot of the stuff he's done, and I was following his efforts and his videos, and I said, you know what? In my last company, I was a leader in the industry, and I spoke a lot early on, but I never got into the video and podcasting and things like that. And so what I want to do now is really take that on as a challenge, to go out and do that. Get those videos out, share that knowledge, and really be an industry leader. So that's my next step.

Shantel: Nice. Well, however we can help, we'll be sure to hyperlink when you have your podcast and the video YouTube channel up. And how can people get in touch with you and learn more about your company? Great, well thank you so much Josh for being on the show and sharing so many valuable nuggets of information on company culture. We really appreciate it.