Startup Cultures Thrive When Leaders Put Their Employees’ Needs First With Michael Stern
September 4, 2022
MP spoke with Michael Stern, founder and CEO of HeadStart, a PR agency for startups, small businesses, and nonprofits. Stern is a three-time founder, former local news executive producer, and PR professional.
How can leaders cultivate a culture of inclusive leadership throughout their organizations, and why does such inclusivity matter?
Everything starts with transparency.
Organizations that don’t have transparency as a core tenant will never create a culture of inclusivity.
Leaders need to be transparent to a fault.
A team that feels like they know what is going on across the organization and feel like they are part of the decision-making process will always be more motivated and feel like a part of leadership.
This kind of inclusivity will help the entire organization perform more effectively.
As a CEO, I like to get into the weeds with my employees, whether with background research or pitching, and they see that the CEO isn’t just sitting in an ivory tower doing no work.
It makes the team more motivated.
How important is recognizing employee achievements to developing a positive work culture, and why?
Positive reinforcement is incredibly important and can come both publicly and privately.
If someone on the team goes above and beyond, give them public credit!
Anything from kudos in a Slack channel or a shoutout on LinkedIn will do the job. Regularly checking in with the team and offering encouragement privately will keep morale high.
Employees should always feel appreciated by the executive team, or else the monotony of daily work will get to them.
On the flip side, try to take it easy on negative reinforcement.
Typically, employees are their worst critics if they make a mistake or do something wrong.
Check in with them, ensure they know what they did and then leave it be.
Nine times out of ten, the mistake won’t happen again, and they’ll be beating themselves up over it.
It’s not worth affecting company culture by berating employees.
What should celebrating employees’ milestones and achievements look like, and why?
Typically, verbal appreciation for milestones and achievements are table stakes.
You have to, as a founder, regularly encourage your team.
From there, small acts of kindness go a long way.
Send a $5 gift card for a Starbucks drink, let people go an hour early, and cancel a meeting to give everyone a long lunch – this will show your team that you are on their side. It is no longer enough to give a year-end bonus and call it a day.
Executive teams need to be celebrating small and big wins throughout the year.
According to The American Institute of Stress, 83% of American workers suffer from work-related stress. What are three out-of-the-box ways leaders can help reduce their employees’ work-related stress and add to a positive work culture, and why these three?
1. Make Sure Your Team Knows They Can Take a Mental Health Day
At HeadStart, we have an unlimited PTO policy, so people aren’t counting their sick or vacation days. Piling up work-related stress will only cause a decrease in performance, so encouraging regular mental health days is vitally important.
2. Set Up a Time To Talk About Non-Work-Related Things
Having countless meetings about all the problems in the organization will only cause more stress.
Set up a time each week, even if it’s for thirty minutes, to ban work talk. Check in with your team on their personal lives.
Talk about upcoming vacations.
Anything to take a breather from work.
3. Consider Altering the Normal Work Schedule
The four-day work week WORKS.
Employees who know they have a three-day weekend will know they have a longer time to recover from the week's stresses.
Even if, instead of leaping to a four-day workweek, you want to implement summer hours year-round and end work early on Friday, it will make a big difference.
66% of American workers suffer from sleep deprivation caused by work-related stress. How can leaders determine whether these types of issues are due to toxicities stemming from leadership or compartmentalized toxicities that happen without the leaders’ knowledge, and how can they be addressed?
The biggest thing a leader can do is constantly check in with their employees and make it clear that they care.
If you are transparent with your team and constantly make yourself accessible, your team will know they can come to you with issues.
You should also, as a leader, be transparent about when you are experiencing stress.
In one of my first full team meetings with HeadStart, I told the team that I go to therapy weekly.
Being open about my mental health struggles has made our team more open and transparent when they are struggling.
Not all environments need creators. However, what value can developing a creator work culture add to an organization, what might that culture look like, and how does one develop it from the ground up?
If you decide to work for a startup, then you are, at your core, an entrepreneur and creator.
As a startup leader, you must foster that culture of creativity as much as possible.
Encourage your team to bring you new ideas for the organization, and then try to implement them! Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean you have the monopoly on all good ideas.
Additionally, encourage your team to explore their passions outside of work too.
Forbidding employees to work outside of your organization is never a good thing.
Startups often require employees to do more for less and do so with smiles. How can leaders spot when employees are overworked, positively intervene, and what corrective actions should be taken, and why?
First, the concept that employees should do more for less while smiling is outdated and an awful mindset.
The traditional startup culture of working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will only harm everyone’s mental and physical health and thus harm the product.
Weekends and vacations need to be mandatory, as a leader, you cannot bug your team outside of regular hours if it is not an absolute emergency.
Starting there will ensure that team members aren’t overworked, and from there, you need to put guardrails in place to ensure they don’t get to that point.
Change your work schedule policies, be transparent and open with your team, and be clear that they should be regularly prioritizing themselves and their personal lives.
Does offering benefits such as four-day work weeks, unlimited PTO, health insurance, and the ability to work from home make up for toxic workplace cultures?
No, these benefits don’t make up for toxic workplace culture.
Nothing can ever make up for a toxic workplace.
If you are at the point where you have a toxic workplace, then you need to ask yourself what you can do to change that workplace, not what benefits you can add to make employees okay with the toxicity.
These types of benefits can help avoid a toxic workplace BEFORE it happens.
When employees feel valued, they are more likely to have a positive work experience, and thus you will have a positive work environment.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
It’s crucial for leaders to remember that just because something has always been done the same way doesn’t mean it’s the right way.
Just because startup culture says you need to grind it out until you cry and then keep working doesn’t mean that’s the best way to function.
Just because the work week has always been five days from 9-5 doesn’t mean that’s the best structure for your team.
Responses provided by Michael Stern, founder and CEO of HeadStart.
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