I am fascinated by work culture. How it humanizes companies and employees, allows certain individuals (or teams) to thrive while others struggle, and impacts employee wellbeing and the bottom line simultaneously. The first 6 years of my career were a crash course in work culture. After finishing my masters, I joined the HQ team of a mid-sized international NGO known for innovation and results. A kind of ‘black sheep’ that challenged the status quo and relied on hard work and entrepreneurial spirit to succeed. At least, that was the external reputation. The culture internally was surprisingly different. The HQ office was quiet and lifeless. The entrepreneurial spirit of the staff that drove results also led to ego battles and internal dysfunction. High staff turnover was the norm. After just 2.5 short years, I was burned out. Not from being over-worked, but from the stagnant energy and isolated work styles. I went from a hungry kid with a passion for international development to the brink of a career change in 30 short months.

Luckily, instead of bowing out I looked for opportunities within the company. I knew a new department was being launched by a Canadian power couple known for achieving results and having fun while doing it! I was desperate for a change and jumped at the opportunity to join their team, without ever meeting them face to face. A month later, we got the chance to meet in person at a staff meeting in Nepal. They invited me to their hotel room where we shared stories, laughed, and bonded about everything BUT work. They were interested in me as a person, what lit me up, and what I did for fun. They made it safe for me to be myself by being vulnerable and relatable themselves. They proved they were human.

I’ll never forget that conversation. It created the foundation for a healthy relationship and loyalty I’ve rarely felt. I watched closely as the team expanded and our fearless leaders kept culture at the forefront.

  • They led by example and invested in each of us personally and professionally.
  • They listened patiently and empathetically.
  • They pushed us to dream big and were in the trenches when shit hit the fan.
  • They were loyal and put our well-being first.
  • They were not just bosses, they were leaders, mentors, and friends.

Looking back, the transition that took place was incredible. I went from being a burned out 25-year old employee to an inspired, driven manager achieving things I never knew possible. At a time when many departments were stagnant, we were thriving! In 2.5 years we grew from a pilot project in 1 country to generating 50% of the organizations total revenue and impact! On top of that, we were attracting the right people from within and outside the organization. People who saw the bond we had, the results we produced, and the smiles on our faces! That’s the power of culture – it makes the individual better, the results bigger, and the team stronger.

This experience changed my approach to business. It showed me how treating people as friends first and employees second is good for the company. It taught me that empathy, encouragement, and coaching are far more valuable than management. It demonstrated that the key to building culture is leading by example.

Whether you’re leading a team, building a tribe, or growing your friend group, remember the other people involved are humans. If you want the best from them, take the time to get to know them. Make them feel heard. Support them in achieving their goals. Then smile as they achieve great things. Job well done.