While some company founders sit down and write out their core values and identify what their company’s culture should be before they even find the people who will help them, others just go with their gut.
For Pete Gombert, founder of local marketing company Balihoo, his gut feeling about culture has turned into a whole new company.
“When I started Balihoo in 2004, I was still very deeply ingrained in what I’ll say is capitalistic mindset,” Gombert says. “Everything we were doing, we were doing to create shareholder value. Fortunately, I think, I had a management philosophy and intuition that we hire good people and treat them right. It’s just good for your business. It wasn’t so much intentional as it was just a gut feeling; that this is the way I want to treat people.”
More than a decade later, Balihoo’s culture is still quite solid – there’s emphasis on transparency and communication, employee fitness is a big deal, people can bring their well-behaved dogs to the office. It’s about 37 people just doing their jobs and trying to treat each other well.
But that wasn’t enough for Gombert, who made a promise to himself as a young man that he would be more than a “normal ho-hum man”, and would do something to help others. (He apologizes for using the term “ho-hum”.) Gombert took his gut feelings about culture and started quantifying them.
“It was as the great recession hit, in late 2007, 2008, 2009,” he says. “We were going through that and it was the first really difficult period in my career. I had been through the normal challenges in business, but nothing where the whole world seemed to be falling apart. That’s why I started reflecting on why I was doing what I was doing.”
Less than two years ago, he founded GoodWell: a company that uses data to measure how companies, organizations, governments, and other entities are performing in 11 key metrics – measuring things like an employee Net Promoter Score (NPS), gender pay equality, and attrition rate. This spring, GoodWell began offering certifications to companies that can pass all 11 of the metrics. The city of Boise, Idaho, where both Balihoo and GoodWell are based, gained certification in March.
“There are three big benefits to getting certified,” Gombert says. “There’s benchmarking that provides actionable insights. There’s best practices and a forum to discuss best practices, and there are metrics to align intentionality with actions.”
Overall, GoodWell provides a methodology for measuring humanity in business – an objective view of employer practices. The entities that are showing interest in certification are wildly diverse, Gombert says. About 50 have been certified so far, and a Fortune 50 company and a world nation are looking at gaining certification this year.
“The response has been really overwhelming since we opened up certification,” Gomber says. “There’s an organization that we were working with that was a non-profit where I know the founder. He’s an amazing, wonderful individual whose heart I know is absolutely in the right place. He was one of the first to say, ‘I want to get certified.’”
But the non-profit failed four of the 11 GoodWell metrics on its first test.
“He was devastated,” Gombert says. “ He said, ‘I had no idea that we had these issues that exist in our business.’ For him, it largely centered around pay and attrition. He’s now in the process of implementing changes in his business to be able to get those metrics in alignment with our standard in order to pass. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the intention of being a really humane business, he just had no structure with which to measure it.”
Gombert says that many business innovators don’t know where their real source of value springs from.
“I now deeply believe it’s from the people,” Gombert says. “I realized that the inherent quality of your talent will impact your business, but I didn’t realize what a true asset your people are.”
In 2014 and 2015, Gombert got a firsthand look at the real world. An experience he and his family had in Phnom Pen, Cambodia, during a 10 month “lap” around the world, gave him a feeling he couldn’t shake off. Gombert saw was other people, who are connected to his company and to businesses around the world, who don’t get transparency and communication in their work. No one cares about their personal health and fitness, and some of them were homeless, living with their dogs under a shack on a flood plain.
“Businesses rely on other businesses to achieve their goals,” Gombert says. “Think about the impact of selling t-shirts. It’s not just the people designing, marketing, and selling the shirts, and the finance department and the HR department. There’s the cotton farmer picking the cotton. The factory where it was sewed, the shipping company that sends the shirt from China or Vietnam. That t-shirt touches hundreds and hundreds of lives.”
With GoodWell, Gombert is in a way trying to amplify the culture at Balihoo, by bringing humanity into the workplace and forcing it all the way down the supply chain, to the more challenging areas of the world. GoodWell’s formula for humanity in business is a way for companies to truly participate in the global community.
Balihoo’s current CEO, Paul Price, says that one of the key pillars to culture, one that Gombert established early on, is that companies must participate in the local community.
“You can’t just go to work, get your work done, and go home, and not recognize the fact that the community you’re in is a big part of why you’re successful,” Price says. “Whether you’re supporting local schools or programs, government or non-governmental organizations, they’re all really contributing to your business. I believe it’s imperative that businesses give back this way.”
Balihoo has one company program that gives all employees several paid hours every month to contribute, whether that be at a community garden or a soup kitchen or a local fundraiser.
“We’ve been part of the local Ronald McDonald house for the last five or six years,” Price says. “Every month, a group of employees goes and makes dinner for the folks staying at the Ronald McDonald house. “We’ve also done fundraisers for community groups. One is a local group that supports families call Family Advocates. Another group we support is the Idaho Youth Ranch. I think it gives folks who work here more of a sense of belonging and a sense of giving back.”
It’s one thing for a company to have an employee suggestion box, Price says. It’s another thing to actually listen, have an open door policy, understand, and respond.
“People need to have a voice,” he says. “At some companies, if you dig in, there are people who were airing their grievances or trying to say, ‘Hey, we have a problem,’ but it was being blocked. It might have been because employees were causing issues and someone wanted to sweep concerns under the rug. Or maybe the concerns would have cost the company money. We try to be transparent and have the open door policy. It’s kind of a cliché, but really anybody can talk to anybody here. We’re not perfect, obviously, but that’s one thing we try really hard at, is transparency and communication.”
By putting humane values first and putting revenue and company growth second, companies can create a much more sustainable business, Price says.
“If you don’t set a standard for how to treat people at the outset, it’s really hard to change that,” he says.
Gombert believes that businesses should create cultures that bring purpose and humanity together with shareholder value.
“They’re not at odds with one another,” he says. “There a perception in business that is still very ubiquitous, that culture and purpose are nice to have, but the primary focus needs to be on the business model and the market and ultimately driving profit and shareholder value. And what I would say to that is that the world is changing. It’s changing quickly, and any business leader that is ignoring the broader role of the corporation or the organization in the wider world, A. they have their head in the sand, and B. they’re missing a massive, massive opportunity.”
April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.