Company Culture in the Hospitality Industry

Roadmap: How To Define and Apply Culture To Your Company

Catersource and Event Solutions Conference & Tradeshow, the world’s premier event for catering and events professionals, welcomed thousands of attendees from around the globe March 8-11, 2015 to Las Vegas. A variety of educational, networking and business opportunities were made available to attendees through conference sessions and special events, including the annual Trendsetters’ Luncheon.

The anticipated lunch session was anchored by a keynote speech by Catersource & Event Solutions’ 2015 Innovator of the Year, Dan Berger. The Founder and CEO of Social Tables spoke to the 800+ attendees about the importance of culture, and the need for developmental leadership in order to build and scale a successful hospitality business in the 21st century.

Here is the transcript of his remarks:

Good Afternoon, and Thank You for attending today’s Trendsetter’s Luncheon!

It’s really humbling for me to speak in front of you all today, because 3 years ago, my company Social Tables, was nothing but me. To be honest, I didn’t even know what Catersource or Event Solutions was.

Today all that has changed. We now have 75 employees and 3,500 customers in 55 countries, and I proudly sit on the Event Solutions Board of Advisors.

I am here to talk to you today about how we got here. It’s not some special sales process, and it’s not just a super innovative product – it’s the softer side of business – the true foundation of an organization…

I’m talking about our company’s culture.

We have been extremely deliberate about building a culture that attracts and retains the best and the most passionate people. Over the next 20 minutes, I am going to tell you how to do that.

Raise your hand if your company has at least one employee (including yourself).

Keep your hand up if you have more than 5 full-time employees.

… 10 employees
… 20 employees
… 50 employees

Now, by show of hands, who has taken the time to think about company culture? And when I say think about it, I mean define your core values, your mission, and vision.

Where We Come From

For Social Tables, it all started a few years ago when I was going to a wedding. It was a beautiful event in Miami, and I was thrilled to be supporting my two friends, but I didn’t know anyone who was going to be there, not even those who I was seated at a table with.

In between polite introductory conversations, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I had known the people at my table before I had arrived, so that we could dive headfirst into our shared interests or backgrounds, and skip all of the niceties that are really just filler conversations? How could a product help create relationships?”

And thus, Social Tables was born as a digital seating chart solution. Our goal was to bring people together so that they could have more meaningful conversations.

Culture Is Supported By Pillars, Values, a Mission, and a Vision

The first piece of wisdom I want to share with you is this: your company culture, its values, its mission, and its vision all start with your leadership. Your management team must be an embodiment of these essential factors if you have a chance at providing a nurturing and successful environment to your employees and customers.

Your company can’t be something you are not.

Good news, if the above doesn’t apply to you today, that doesn’t mean you can’t change. Our own leadership didn’t start out as the embodiment of who we are today. In fact, when we reached 5 employees, I realized we had a few slackers, and that in order to get everyone working towards a shared goal, we needed a way to define our culture.

Company Pillars

Thus, our first cultural exercise was born. We sat together and decided that the following four items would be the pillars of our company, and words that we could reflect on in times of confusion or success:

· Fail Fast and Often
· Ship All Day, Party All Night (coding language)
· Never say “No, because…”, only “Yes, if…”
· High Risk, High Reward

Core Values

These four pillars remain the foundational support of who we are to this day, but when we got to 15 people, they weren’t enough to sustain our cultural needs, so we decided to define our core values.

All of the Social Team members entered a small conference room one by one, and were given a stack of sticky notes. Each of them quietly reflected on what both the team and the product itself meant to them. The end result was a room papered in sticky notes that reflected a group of people who were all passionate about working together to produce something that was high-quality and innovative. These dozens of phrases, words, and ideas were condensed down to a list of nine company values:

· Customer First.
· Teams are Families.
· Decidedly Determined.
· High Quality.
· Every Day is a School Day.
· Constant Innovation.
· Stay Lean.
· Always Honest.
· Be Outrageous.

Mission Statement

Once we hit 20 people or so, I realized that everyone needed to get on the same page as it related to our mission, so we ran a week-long exercise to define our mission statement.

Our first mission statement was “to transform one-time events into life-long experiences.” We adopted this mission because our first-generation product focused on attendees and we wanted to make sure they extracted as much value out of events as possible.

Extracting value out of an event is highly subjective. To one person, that could mean finding a new business opportunity, to another it could mean learning something new, and to someone else it could mean meeting that special someone.

As we learned more about our industry and its needs, we realized that we couldn’t have a direct impact on attendees without first fundamentally changing the way events are planned. This means increasing communication between stakeholders and eliminating as many inefficiencies as possible.

With this newfound focus on the planner, it was time to reevaluate our mission. To that end — and in true Social Tables fashion — we turned this task into a crowdsourced series of workshops, and came up with the mission statement that we live by today: To inspire face to face experiences by empowering those who plan and attend them.

A great mission statement explains what an organization does, who it does it for, and how it does it. The key to a great mission statement is that it is measurable. You can’t judge success without a benchmark.

What’s beautiful about our mission statement is that it hasn’t changed much since my original concept: to bring people together.

Vision Statement

By the time we were 40 employees, a mission statement wasn’t enough. We needed a north star. A way to define a future state for our world.

I took my executive team to an offsite and said, “What if everyone had Social Tables? What would that world look like?” We needed a vision statement that would serve as our company’s North Star. Something we are all headed toward. After much discussion, and some homemade tacos, we came up with our first vision statement: We envision a world where people come together to achieve great things.

I shared this with the company and it reinvigorated everyone. It gave us all a sense of purpose and clarity.

Departmental Purpose Statements

By the time we hit 60 employees, we felt that some folks, especially newer team members, didn’t really connect to the vision statement and values.

So we introduced purpose statements and team-specific values. Each team got together for a building exercise, where in 140-characters or less, they were tasked with defining their individual purpose within the company.

The results of these workshops are posted up in our office, shared with the entire company, and implemented into everything we do (performance management, hiring, etc).

I just walked you through how to define your culture, your core values, your mission statement vision statements, and purpose statements.

These are the most important tools in your leadership toolkit. They make hiring, firing, managing, and growing your business much easier because you can manage against them.

The Application of Culture

How do you integrate the words that define your culture? The key is alignment. Your interview process, performance management system, marketing collateral, and so on, have to align with your values, mission, vision and purpose to make them worth anything.

For example, during the Social Tables interview, we ask candidates to describe their favorite event. That ensures what we call the passion test. Are they passionate about the industry?

We ask them to tell us what makes them weird. That aligns to our ‘Be Outrageous’ value.

Autonomy and Mastery

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink says that employees of our generation, once they make a fair wage, are looking for 3 things: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. I just told you how to make sure your employees get purpose. Let me share with you two other tools that we use to ensure that they have autonomy and mastery in their work.

At Social Tables, we consider ourselves deliberately development organization (or a DDO).

We believe that coming to work at our company doesn’t only make you a better employee. It makes you a better person.

We accept people’s faults and work with them on becoming better versions of themselves.

I urge you to think about how you integrate learning into your organizations. How are you giving your employees the ability to master their craft? Here are a few ideas:
Facilitate Lunch and Learns with internal talent. Let your employees educate one another about their strengths, and share their weaknesses.
Provide an education fund for professional and personal development.
Partner program with like-minded companies for mentorship and industry tours.

As far as autonomy is concerned, we empower employees. I kind of believe in having a chaotic management style. I let people figure it out. But you can’t do that without a firm understanding between the employer and employee about what their personal mission is.

To that end, we took a page out of Reid Hoffman’s book, The Alliance.

Tours of Duty

The alliance is all about considering your relationship with employees as a partnership. You’re honest with them about what you need, and they’re honest with you about what they want.

He calls this a Tour of Duty. HBR does a great job of describing this principle:

“The tour-of-duty approach works like this: The company gets an engaged employee who’s striving to produce tangible achievements for the firm and who can be an important advocate and resource at the end of his tour or tours. The employee may not get lifetime employment, but he takes a significant step toward lifetime employability. A tour of duty also establishes a realistic zone of trust. Lifelong employment and loyalty are simply not part of today’s world; pretending that they are decreases trust by forcing both sides to lie.

Properly implemented, the tour-of-duty approach can boost both recruiting and retention. The key is that it gives employer and employee a clear basis for working together. Both sides agree in advance on the purpose of the relationship, the expected benefits for each, and a planned end.

The problem with most employee retention programs is that they have a fuzzy goal (retain “good” employees) and a fuzzy time frame (indefinitely). Both types of fuzziness destroy trust: The company is asking an employee to commit to it but makes no commitment in return. In contrast, a tour of duty serves as a personalized retention plan that gives a valued employee concrete, compelling reasons to finish her tour and that establishes a clear time frame for discussing the future of the relationship.”

You need to accept the fact that your employees may not want to work at your org their whole life, and that’s okay. Just have honest conversations about expectations to not make it weird.

To summarize, commit to defining your culture through words, apply those words into action, and enable your employees to feel inspired and passionate about their careers through supportive, deliberate shaping of their careers.

Thank you again for joining us today!