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Want to Make Your Culture Shock Proof? Take Care of Your Employees First

If you’ve ever dropped your smartphone and watched it fall to the ground or, worse, in the water, you know the angst that immediately follows. OtterBox founder and CEO Curt Richardson has calmed the fears of many phone droppers since he started making covers for the Blackberry and iPod in the 1990s.

Richardson was originally focused on making simple plastic boxes in his Fort Collins, Colorado garage for customers who wanted to keep supplies dry while skiing or fishing. He later made the leap to technology as the mobile-device industry exploded. Five years later and more than a 1,000 percent increase in business, the company went on to control a huge market share and sell more than $1 billion in cases each year.

This kind of hockey-stick growth can prevent leaders from focusing on actions that make a startup culture a competitive advantage—namely being a positive influence on employees. What’s more, meeting increased demand means attention to systems, operations, and more layers of people, which can diminish flexibility and the responsive practices that make a company feel more human.

Much like your phone is shock-resistant with a cover, you want your company to survive the bumps along the way that naturally occur with significant growth. If a leader wants to feel that immediacy and connection they had back at the garage with a few dedicated colleagues, they can gather inspiration from leaders like Richardson, who has maintained employee-centered practices with his people to this day.

Chief (Culture) Caretaker

Watching and responding to how your culture gets better or worse as the company grows is one of many critical responsibilities leaders have. Richardson learned an important and painful lesson about taking care of culture when he elected to step away from Otter for four years to focus on other ventures. While the company continued to experience tremendous growth, what was happening on the inside wasn’t so tremendous.

Word started to reach Richardson about how the culture had changed. Employees were upset with how they were treated and how the business was being run. Feeling as if he’d let his people down, Richardson promptly returned in a visionary role to restore Otter to its former culture and philosophy.

When Richardson defines culture, he says: “It’s how we’re going to relate to each other; it’s how we’re going to treat each other; it’s how we’re going to do business. That’s the culture. For us, the Golden Rule is number one. If you violate that at Otter, you’re in trouble. We’re going to treat each other as we want to be treated. If you do that, it makes a lot of wrong things right.”

Install a Heart of Giving

While focusing on the culture is one way to monitor the influence your leadership is having on others, a company can choose to spread that influence through its people and out into the community. The mission at OtterBox is “We grow to give.” In other words, Richardson explains that it’s really about giving back. “If we make more money, we can give more money away. We can make a difference in the community; we can make a difference in people’s lives.”

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When Richardson considers his legacy, he wants the company’s prosperity to change people’s lives. For example, he says that if the leadership can “install a heart of giving” in their young people so they understand that giving can be part of their lives, their ingenuity combined with philanthropy creates a ripple effect in the community at large.

Known for his open-door policy when employees seek out his feedback about a business idea, Richardson even likes to provide loans to some of his in-house entrepreneurs. He encourages them to discover their passion and supports them in leaving the company if that’s what they choose to do.

Leading with a heart to positively influence others has clearly given Richardson and his leadership team a return on their investment in people. Their culture is not only shock-resistant, but OtterBox continues to be one of the top employers in Colorado today—a distinction they’re proud of and a position they’ll work hard to protect.

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