Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies To Work For: It’s Not About The Perks!

2012 100 Best Company's To Work For CoverHere’s the scenario:  You’ve just picked up the latest Fortune Magazine – the one which features it’s annual listing of America’s “100 Best Company’s To Work For.”

As you review the list, you’re not too terribly surprised to see that Google now ranks number one and that firms heralded in past years (e.g. SAS, Wegman’s Foods and Boston Consulting) again rank in the top 5.

As an ambitious leader seeking to learn from the example of these organizations, you read all the articles that describe their shared characteristics.  And then you put the magazine on your credenza and go back to work.

If I saw you the next day and asked you what you discovered to be the common denominators of all the great places to work, what would you say?

If I had to guess, you’d likely say something like “incredible perks.”

While I truly admire Fortune Magazine for producing a list like this (annually updated since 1998), I think they unintentionally do a huge disservice to readers (leaders) by creating the illusion that providing perks like stocked pantries and free gymnasiums is predominantly what it takes to win the hearts of workers.

Just consider Fortune’s treatment of Google.  In naming it as the new #1, the magazine showcases ten truly extravagant perks that almost no other company in the country replicates (Bowling alleys, unlimited free gourmet food and discounted eyebrow shaping to name a few).

If I’m a leader who wants to build my own team of happy, engaged and exceedingly productive employees, I’m too easily persuaded that I’m reliant on my organization to step up it’s gift giving.  I’m not adequately convinced my own leadership practices play a meaningful role in employee satisfaction.  And I would be wrong.

The truth is (and Fortune, to its credit, clearly know this) whether amazing perks are provided or not) great places to work share at least five common leadership traits.  And these practices can and should be modeled by every business leader:

1.   They See Employees As The Heart Of Their Company

The intention to give employees perks starts with the belief that well cared for employees are likely to return the generosity in kind.   If you don’t control your company’s purse strings, you nevertheless can place a high emphasis on employee satisfaction and retention.  Do this by consistently demonstrating that you genuinely value each employee and are grateful for all they contribute.

(Using quotes I found in Fortune), Google CEO, Larry Page said it’s his goal to “make people feel like they’re part of a family.”  “When you treat people that way, you get greater productivity.”

2.   They’re Committed To Deep And Ongoing Development And Mentoring

Employees remain happy and engaged when they feel they’re always growing.   Star leaders have realized that they have much to teach and knowledge to share with their employees and do so generously.   SAS (#1 on Fortune’s list in 2010 and 2011) recently created a 90-day “Leadership and Energy For Performance Program” which teaches managers how to bring as much energy possible to every area of their life – including the workplace.  By demonstrating that they care for every dimension in each employee’s lives, SAS’s leaders inherently win over employee hearts.

3.   Successes and People Are Routinely Celebrated

In full understanding that pay (bonuses, raises etc.) has ceased to be any person’s primary motivator, leaders find creative and authentic ways of routinely honoring great effort and achievement.  Feeling recognized for one’s work is one of the cornerstones of a happy workforce.

4.   They Reinforce The Benefits Of Collaboration And Team Success

Keeping in mind Page’s idea of creating an employee “family,” great emphasis is placed on team cooperation vs. competitiveness.  At Google, 20% of an employee’s workday is devoted to a project of the employee’s choosing.  Employees not only derive a sense of personal fulfillment by participating in work that’s outside their normal scope, they inherently help other employees deliver on their goals.

5.   They Frequently Communicate How Individual Employee Efforts Impact The Organization’s Success

Once again revealing that Google’s success in attracting and keeping great employees has much more to do with insightful leadership, CEO, Page, said his goal as a leader “is to make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities and that they feel they’re having a meaningful impact and contributing to the good of society.”  The key take-away:  Make sure your employees always know that they matter – that their work matters.

Bring in muffins or doughnuts occasionally, if you like, but by implementing the spirit of just these five practices, you’ll build an incredibly happy and sustainably productive team of people.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.