5 Keys to grow a Thriving Culture

Aaron Marshall
4 min readSep 24, 2020

Trowel or roto-till — what will it take to tend your culture?

People want to like their work, and many great companies have learned that organizational culture matters. A thriving culture will pay massive dividends.

On the flip side, a culture full of weeds and thistles can choke out productivity.

For better and worse, your workplace culture is a collection of implicit and explicit norms. It’s the sum of values and behaviors that flavor your team/s. The healthier your collective practices get, the stronger your culture becomes — and this has huge impacts.

I know because like you, I’m in the thick of it.

As a coach, I get to help executives rethink their culture strategies. I get to support teams working to become stronger — trying to get on mission together.

In the classroom, I equip undergrads with the habits and practices that undergird thriving workplace cultures. I see them wrestle through the “people challenges” that complicate social entrepreneurship and community action.

As the Chief Operating Officer at Santa Barbara Zoo where, alongside an incredible team of nearly 200 employees and over a thousand annual volunteers, I get to serve nearly a half-million guests each year.

Figuring out how to do work together — how to be a good teammate, how to treat one another, how to encourage and grow healthy teams— is a really big deal.

If you’re a Peter Drucker fan, you’re familiar with his “culture eats strategy for breakfast” line. If the right folks can’t work together in healthy ways, forget about implementing even the best strategy. Top payroll doesn’t win championships. Healthy culture glues winning teams together.

If you prefer Seth Godin’s notion that “Culture is strategy,” you’re already convinced, and ready to develop a thriving culture in your own team.

Developing a thriving culture requires intention — tedious intention.

If your organization is like most, you’ve watched the culture just sort of happened. Like a backyard garden left unattended, workplace habits and practices develop on their own. If you have people, they will behave in particular ways and establish particular habits. With or without your attention, your workplace culture will grow. When left unattended, your workplace may produces some fruit alongside thistles and weeds.

But if you tend the garden — making sure the soil, sun, and water are there, prune properly, pull weeds at the right time, and on — you’ll end up with a bountiful harvest and a lot less thistle.

Just think — what would less thistles and more fruit mean for your team? How would a healthier culture impact your business?

Without getting into the weeds (see what I did there?), having a healthy workplace culture:

  • increases employee loyalty,
  • improves retention,
  • accelerates trust,
  • generates bonds of support, team, & family,
  • attracts talent, and
  • turns employees into advocates.

It’s in tending the proverbial garden that you shape the habits and practices you want to see in your workplace. You have the power to identify what’s not working and introduce alternative habits and practices.

It’s not easy, but you can develop a thriving culture at your workplace.

I know it’s not easy because I’ve lived in the thistles. I’ve seen unhealthy cultures from the inside out — as an employee, a founder, and a coach. I’ve also seen them transformed into bountiful harvests.

So, what are the 5 keys to building a thriving culture at your workplace or startup?

My experience and loads of research suggest that healthy workplace cultures to the following 5 things really well:

  1. Get folks on mission together
  2. Provide clarity from the top
  3. Build relationships on trust
  4. Develop culture reinforcing support systems
  5. Keep feeding the culture regularly

That’s it. Piece of cake, right?

No. It’s not easy, but it’s also not rocket science. Figure out the tools you’ll need — a proverbial trowel for some small adjustments, or a roto-till to refresh the soil and start over — and get your hands dirty. You’ll be thankful you did when the next harvest rolls around.

PS. If you’re looking for a step-by-step guide to help you build an amazing culture at your company, you’re in luck! I’ll be unpacking each of these 5 keys in a blog post of their own.

I’m also launching a new book (as soon as I carve time to finish editing) that covers this ground in much greater depth — breaking these 5 key practices into twenty-four chapters jam-packed with practical examples and tangible steps you can take to build a thriving culture with your team.

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Aaron Marshall

Thriving family guy & founder w/ PhD. equips you to scale your impact. coaches execs/owners. teaches undergrads. COOs at zoo. surfs w/ his kids. armarshall.com