4 Authentic Ways to Strengthen Your Company Culture

A few months ago, my wife Betsy and two of our staffers, Koula and Avery, went up to Seattle to learn how to deliver excellent customer service.

The highlight of the trip was dinner at Canlis, a restaurant that has consistently ranked as one of Seattle’s best dining experiences for over sixty years.

Not too long ago, we interviewed Mark and Brian Canlis, who are third-generation owners and operators of the restaurant.

If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s one of the more inspiring conversations you’ll find about running a business with your heart in the right place.

Plus, we got the whole conversation on video, so you can feel like you’re sitting at the table with us.

I rewatched it after Betsy got home from Seattle, and I was struck by Canlis’ unique approach to hiring and building a company culture. In fact, you can draw a direct line from the success of their culture to their success as a restaurant.

If you’re growing a company and looking to bring on the right people and treat them well, watch this interview. Or keep reading for a recap of the most valuable takeaways for creating the kind of company culture that in turn builds a stronger business.

Hire for character first, skills second.

Canlis is the kind of place you go on your honeymoon, to win over a huge account, to celebrate your kid’s graduation. It’s where we took my mom when she was diagnosed with cancer.

It’s perfect for once-in-a-lifetime occasions, and for Canlis that’s a very big responsibility.

As Brian told me: “[Our guests] walk in the door with this fragile memory and they’re offering it to you and they’re saying, Can you take care of this? They’re coming to eat, they’re coming to drink, but they’re coming to make sure that tonight will matter.”

So when they hire, they look for people who understand and get excited about that responsibility.

The potential employees who come in with years of service experience are actually at a disadvantage, because they think they know how to serve.

That’s not what’s critical to their business. As Brian points out, you can teach the technical parts of food service.

But people who get excited about taking care of other people are hard to find.

Brian told me: “We’re hiring people whose parents did a great job on them when they were kids. We’re hiring people who have an inner comfort in their own skin who understand the world doesn’t revolve around them. We’re hiring people you want to take a roadtrip with.”

In other words, they don’t look for people with the skills to deliver the external need of their customers (eating a delicious meal). They hire people who can fulfill the internal need (making sure tonight matters).

The big takeaway: Consider the internal needs of your customers, and hire people who can serve those needs. You can always train them around the specifics of the external needs.

Serve your employees.

One of the paradigm shifts we talk about a lot at StoryBrand is that your customer is the hero, not your brand. At Canlis, this goes even deeper.

They see their employees as the hero. When they interview somebody, they’re trying to figure what the journey of this potential candidate is. In fact, part of the interview process is to share how working at Canlis will help you become who you’re trying to become.

Mark tells it like it is: “If I’m not interested in the staff and the journey they’re on, then I might as well just be upfront to them and say, ‘Hey, man, I just want to use you for a little bit from my own personal need.’ No one wants to be used.

If this happens, Brian adds, “Then the staff will use the guest. They’ll say, hey, I’ll serve you, I’ll give you what you want and you give me what I want, which is a nice tip.”

Here’s a story I love that exemplifies their desire to see their employees grow.

Remember that glorious day in 2014 when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl? Not too long after that, Canlis had a staff meeting — get this — in the middle of the field. They told their employees to look around at the stands, at all 82,000 seats. They said, “We’re going to serve about this number of people in the coming year. Now, sit down, look at the stands, and write down one way that you will grow by serving all these people.”

The big takeaway: You’ve probably heard it before, but the experience at Canlis bears it out: take care of your employees well, and they’ll extend the same care to your customers.

Create bonds outside of work.

Thanks to one too many trust falls, team bonding has gotten a bad name.

But there’s a better, more authentic way you can help your employees forge meaningful bonds with each other outside of the workplace.

At Canlis, they regularly play games together. For example, they’ve got an arsenal of laser tag weapons for the staff and they play once a month inside of the restaurant after they’re done with that evening’s service. At one point, they filled a huge above-ground pool in the parking lot of the restaurant and hosted a luau for the staff.

And while all this stuff is loads of fun, it’s not only about that. It’s about being vulnerable with each other. That leads to trust, and when two staffers trust each other, it helps them deliver amazing service in the restaurant.

As Brian said, “If you enjoy playing together, you’ll love working together. And if you love working together then you can crush it.”

The big takeaway: Carve out space for your employees to spend time together outside of work. And make sure it’s actually fun!

Inspire employees with a bigger vision

If you ever go to Canlis, see if you can sneak downstairs and see the wall that simply says, “Keep The Promise.”

*Photo Credit: Horace H. Chan

It’s their mantra, and they say it each night before service begins.

What does it mean?

In Brian’s word, “It’s our promise to each guest at Canlis who walks in the restaurant wanting tonight to matter. They come to Canlis for a very specific reason and they come to trust us. That’s the promise we want to keep.”

It’s a clear and simple message that everybody on staff understands, and it guides them around the common cause.

They know that their work is about more than serving food. It’s about serving people well and helping them create lifelong memories.

The big takeaway: Do your employees know the bigger cause that your company stands for? Make sure you can articulate it clearly, and then consider creative ways you can reinforce it with your staffers.

In addition to these great takeaways about company culture, you’ll find a lot more wisdom from Brian and Mark Canlis in the full interview. Watch it if you haven’t already, and I know you’ll be inspired.

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