How to Cultivate a Community at Your Organization
An exiting employee receives his Social Tables Alumni shirt
A Community is as an exclusive group of like-minded people, one in which members don’t only share interests but also a sense of belonging.
Most astute business leaders should know that cultivating a real Community is vital to organizational success, as it strengthens inter-company employee bonds and encourages them to work hard so as not to let their fellow community members down. But it’s not as simple as coming up with a clever name for employees (e.g. Googlers) or having an annual picnic. Rather, it takes deliberate and thoughtful Community-building initiatives. This is much easier to implement with a team of 20 or fewer, as the Community focus becomes part of the organizational fabric early on—and remains an integral thread as the company grows.
In my post, I introduced the four basic pillars I believe are necessary to build true Community: hospitality as a virtue, regular rituals, a feeling of exclusivity, and a true sense of belonging for all. By instituting these pillars, you achieve greater productivity, as employees work toward a greater cause; improve retention, since they’re collaborating with colleagues they care about; and enhance referrals, as team members bring in similar individuals.
With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into each pillar, including how my team implemented them at Social Tables. After all, Alex Ferrara, the partner at Bessemer Venture Partners who led our Series A, noted that Community-building was one of my greatest strengths as ST’s CEO—validation that makes me feel empowered to share them with you.
VIDEO: In an interview I did with Ferrara he discusses our culture as a competitive advantage.
Making Hospitality a Core Virtue
Companies often promote their core values, but in reality virtues—how you embody and live up to those beliefs—matter far more. In Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table, he discusses the virtue of hospitality, encouraging employees to be agents rather than gatekeepers for guests. The difference is that the role of gatekeepers is to keep people out, while the role of agents is to bring people in.
At Social Tables, we didn’t have a designated receptionist. Instead, we expected everyone to be a hospitality agent, welcoming guests, offering them a beverage, and making them feel at home when they walked through our doors. We applied this virtue to our customer service approach as well. Being in the hospitality industry, we ensured we were treating our clients the way they treated theirs. And in the culture portion of our interview, we tested for this virtue.
Creating a Set of Community Rituals
Just as infusing a sense of hospitality enhances the employee experience, so do rituals. Without them, people are liable to forget just how crucial they as individuals are to the whole. As such, we created our own quarterly customs.
The rituals we developed reflected the character of who we were as a company and a Community, providing built-in opportunities for togetherness, fun, and celebration. Each quarter had its own ritual to remind us why we do what we do.
In Q1, we held ST Conf, an internal education conference to teach employees about the industry. During Q2, we celebrated Family Weekend, where we brought in employees’ families to learn about our company and each other with programming around DC. In Q3, we had the Chiavari Awards, which recognized employees in each department with superlatives—the Coach, the Village Elder, etc.—at an Oscars-style blowout. And in Q4, we hosted a holiday party that was closed to spouses, offering employees the opportunity to connect with each other.
Understanding the Value of Exclusivity
Communities should feel exclusive to those who are a part of them. Why? Part of who we are is defined by who we aren’t. This approach contradicts the extreme level of political correctness most academic and corporate institutions have bought into today. But the reality is, instead of feeling safe enough to express their opinions, those whose beliefs do not align with the majority often feel safer shutting up, lest they get cancelled by their colleagues. They’re afraid to be themselves, and that only serves to stifle creativity and progress. When everyone belongs, no one belongs.
At the end of the day, people want to serve leaders who share their beliefs. As such, it’s important for employers to be transparent about their values, politics included.
Don’t be afraid to cultivate that feeling of exclusivity among your team and prospective hires. For example, an intricate recruiting process that seeks to determine cultural fit may serve to strengthen the community and ensure you’re bringing the right people on board. Another example was our Tabler Alumni program, which let exiting employees continue to be a part of our exclusive community even after they left the company.
Cultivating a Sense of Belonging
While true belonging can’t necessarily be quantified, you can look for evidence that it’s there. Do your employees cheer each other on? For instance, I always liked to ensure everyone was celebrated with the same zeal, listening for clapping and enthusiasm from co-workers when their peers won a company award. Do your employees hang out on their own, keep up with former teammates, and demonstrate that they are invested in each other? These are all indicators that they really feel like they belong.
Belonging serves as an overall indicator of whether or not you’ve successfully built a real Community. If your employees show that they truly care about each other, chances are you’re doing things right. And if you work to maintain those four pillars over time, your Community will enhance, rather than hinder, your organizational progress for the long haul.
These are the ways that I cultivated a Community as I led Social Tables from founding to exit. What are some ways that you cultivate Community at your organization?