A Foolish Approach to Corporate Culture

Corporate culture is a common phrase in today’s workplace, but it wasn’t as fashionable in 1993, when brothers Tom and David Gardner and their friend Erik Rydholm founded The Motley Fool, an investment newsletter. One year later, at the dawn of the online age, the team inked a contract with America Online to provide personal finance content and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward nearly one-quarter of a century and the privately held Virginia-based company boasts some 300 employees and multiple revenue-producing divisions. The basic approach to corporate culture at the company has evolved greatly, but it is based on the same bedrock the brothers established when they hired their first few employees.

“We didn’t really have a (recruiting) budget, so we hired our fun friends from college and high school. If you’re going to hire people you know at the start of your business, you’re going to want to make it a fun place to work,” explains David Gardner. “We were trying from the get-go to be a place where people would want to come to work each day.”

An Award-Winning Environment

The Gardners stuck to that simple formula as the company grew. Today, they appear regularly on various lists of best companies to work for (twice named the No. 1 small or medium-sized company to work at in America by Glassdoor.com). More recently, their emphasis on overall well-being earned them the title this summer as the most athletic place to work, which was bestowed by DC Fest.

Recently, David Gardner sat with Fool colleagues Kara Chambers, vice president of insights, and Lee Burbage, chief people officer, to discuss some of the unique programs that shape the company’s award-winning corporate culture.

Bookie Monster – Got a business book you’re interested in reading? Fool employees simply email the title to a program administrator and it’s ordered. And the company interprets the term “business book” loosely. One person wanted a book to help them learn Japanese. Chambers recently received gratis “How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life” by Caroline Webb.

“It’s fun to walk past the front desk and see the books that are waiting to be picked up,” she says. Gardner likes the program because it brings a culture of reading and learning to the office. Employees are encouraged to add the book to a company library once they’ve read it.

Speaker series – On the lecture tour, notables like Michael Lewis and Elon Musk command five or six figures for a single speech, yet Fool employees had the opportunity to see them and many others for free when they dropped by Foolish HQ. The big-name lecturers are great, but Burbage says he enjoys the local and regional people who also speak. A neighbor of his gave a presentation on raising culturally conscious kids.

Listening – “One of the best gifts you can give someone is to just listen,” says Chambers. The company’s peer coaching program is designed with that in mind. Participants (it’s an opt-in program) are matched with someone in a different division who simply checks in once or twice a year to hear how that person is doing and to be a sounding board. “It’s not as heavy-handed as a mentor,” Chambers explains, adding that it reinforces the company’s emphasis on peer feedback.

Exploring – New hires are given six months to settle into and feel comfortable with their job, and then they are encouraged to find projects outside of their division. For example, the company recently announced it is investigating launching a new revenue-generating division and invited anyone who was interested in helping research whether it makes sense. “We are a project culture,” says Burbage. “My favorite people are those who are working on four to six projects at a time.”

Autonomy of workspace – To the greatest extent possible, Fool HQ is an office on wheels so people can change their workspace whenever the mood strikes. “Our office is literally different every day,” Burbage says. Gardner says it’s a small thing that has a surprisingly big impact.

An office on wheels may not be practical or even suitable for your company, but it’s important to be open to new ideas. “Every company has a culture, but not every culture is right for everybody,” says Burbage. Experiment with concepts that will set a corporate culture you feel will help your company recruit and retain top talent – and perhaps put you on a “best places to work” list.