When Scott Uknes and Eric Ward were launching AgBiome in 2012, they thought as much about the culture and employee experience as they did about the science and technical development. They wanted to build a company that would be attractive to candidates; one that was fun, successful, and brought out the best in people. While it hasn’t always been easy, this emerging ag biotech company has developed a unique and principle-based company culture over its first five years.
Ditch the Boss
AgBiome is a participative, self-managed organization where no one has a boss. That’s right, no one has a boss. Instead, employees self-assemble as teams around organizational issues that need to be tackled, and internal experts help drive important decisions. Meetings are open and information is shared transparently to anyone within the company.
Voluntary employee committees run many of the processes typically managed by the human resources function in more traditional companies. For example, there’s an employee committee that manages compensation, and another one that selects and administers benefits. When there’s a potential performance issue, it gets handled by the employee committee.
Encourage Hands-On Learning
Professional development is of great importance because continual learning is paramount to ongoing company success. Employees are asked to set aside up to 20% of their work time to dedicate toward their own professional development. Sometimes this can mean books and training classes, but AgBiome is a big believer in learning through doing. Employees are encouraged to participate in the various internal committees and ad hoc teams running the company. They’re encouraged to attend professional conferences and meetings, network and build relationships in and out of the company, and choose a dedicated professional development partner to help steer their growth.
Create an Inclusive Company Culture Where Everyone Feels Valued
This may seem like an extreme approach to many more traditional companies, and it’s definitely hard and purposeful work to sustain. At the same time, AgBiome has been really successful so far and turnover has been extremely limited. There are definitely elements of the company culture that are immediately transferable to other companies. One would be to cultivate a culture where employees feel included and valuable. AgBiome’s belief is that employees are expected to act like adults outside of work, and therefore the same is expected inside work, too. People want to be involved in selecting who they’re working with and what they’re working on. By openly sharing information and not limiting participation, employees can pick and choose to be involved in whatever is
important to them.
Hire Communicative Self-Starters Who Enjoy Collaboration
When employees have disagreements or differences of opinions, they are asked to first try and work through any difficulties directly with the other people involved (as opposed to complaining to someone else within the organization). The company offers training and support to help employees develop and practice these conflict and communication skills.
And hiring is the most important thing AgBiome does. All employees are invited to participate in the hiring process. It’s important to find people with the right skills, experience, and cultural fit. While a self-managed culture sounds great on the surface, it’s not right for everyone. To work successfully in the self-managed culture, it requires employees who take initiative and have strong communication and collaboration skills. The fundamentals are universal: build trust, encourage all, tackle hard subjects head-on, and hopefully, have fun!