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What Does It Take to Be the "Best" of Companies Today?

Another best companies to work for list has been published. So, is your company on it? If not, you have work to do - real work to do - as a manager.

As a management professor and consultant, one of the questions that is inevitably posed - whether in a class or in a company’s conference room - is a simple one: How do we - as a company - become better? Now better - in this context - is a word with literally a thousand different possible meanings and interpretations. From a management perspective, you have to ask yourself specifically what do you want to achieve by getting better:

  • How do we become more productive?
  • How do we become more efficient?
  • How do we become an organization that people want to work for?
  • How do we create a corporate culture that works for us and our customers?

In my career, I have literally had conversations for hours with numerous top executives who would do anything to have their organization become better - and I have seen them determined to make their organization be - and be perceived by their employees - as the “best” of organizations. But what is frustrating to many, many executives - in both the largest of companies and in small businesses - is that employees’ views on their jobs, their company, and their roles with it are very subjective in nature - and often very unpredictable. One employee wants order; another wants freedom. One employee values family benefits; another is single with no intention of ever having a family. One employee loves the company’s vacation policy; another thinks it to be unfair.

Business then, as in life, is subject to the unpredictable, nuanced, and individualized perception of what is truly important. And as such, there is no one “path,” no one “formula,” no one set of “steps to follow” to make your organization a better place to work - let alone to be perceived as one of the best places to work.

And yet, while there is no secret formula to creating the best company culture - one in which employees are dedicated to the company, are working at their highest level of performance, and are focused on truly satisfying the customers - there is certainly a common executive mindset that underpins how the truly “best” of companies go about their business. They believe in a simple equation: You have to put your employees first to make good things happen for the organization as a whole. When the workers - from the front-lines to the executive suite - believe that top management truly values them and their efforts, then they will return that loyalty in spades. The ROI - the return on investment - of investing in your employees is hands down the best investment management can ever make.

Now believe it or not, classical management theory does not really support this idea. Organizational behavior pioneer Frederick Herzberg famously held that money is not a motivator. Try selling that one in a class of business majors or in a training session with commission salespeople - yikes - that one has almost caused insurrections! And over and over again, we see management ideas - proven by some research - that do not correlate with the way things really work. Does a happier workplace lead to more productivity? Yes, in reality, but there are numerous studies to the contrary. Will a team of employees that feel good about where they work make them more willing to make customers feel good about doing business with their company? Yes, in reality, but there are numerous studies to the contrary. Are employee benefits a factor in employees’ decisions to stay with their employer? Yes, in reality, but there are numerous studies to the contrary. Take almost any position - however counterintuitive it might be, and yes, Google Scholar will find you studies in .023 seconds that will seemingly lend support to notions that will make management worse in practice, rather than better. 

That is why management is seemingly made so hard these days. The more we think we know about “good” management, the more muddled the picture becomes. And yes, I have hundreds of my colleagues across the country and around the world working at this very moment to research notions that do not relate to how effective managers and excellent organizations work in the “real world” - no matter how many employees and students they may survey. And, by the way, the more complex management is made, the better it is for the management consulting business! 

But what really matters is what really works in real organizations. And fortunately, we have very useful insights into what does work. Unfortunately though, this information does not come from the halls of prestigious business schools these days. Instead, it comes from the best source of all - those who do the real work in organizations. 

And so I was drawn to a report recently released by Comparably, an innovative Santa Monica, California-based firm that uses input from real employees in real organizations of all sizes to provide insights into companies and compensation. They compile feedback from the most important source of all - actual employees of companies - to gain insight on organizations on a number of different dimensions - organizational culture, benefits, happiness, compensation, etc. Once you identify as an employee with a particular firm, Comparably asks you to rate your organization based on fifty different dimensions. They then compile these results to produce informative reports on organizations of all types and all sizes that interested parties can access for free on the Web. This can prove to be a particularly good resource for job hunters - or wannabe job hunters - as they consider making a career move.

Comparably analyzes the cumulative results of all this input from workers in their respective firms to produce lists of the best places to work in America. They divide organizations based on whether they are large (over 500 employees) or small-to-midsize companies (those with less than 500 employees). For a large firm to be considered in their ranking methodology, Comparably must receive 50 completed submissions from current employees. Likewise, for a small-medium sized company to be included in their analysis, a firm must have received input from at least 15 participants.

And so each year, Comparably ranks the best places to work overall in America, based on their two size categories. Here then - in Tables 1 and 2 below - are the firm’s lists of the Best Places to Work in 2018, first the top 10 for large companies, and next, their top 10 ranked small-medium sized organizations. If you click on each company name, you will be taken to Comparably’s report on that particular organization:

Table 1: Best Places to Work Overall - Top 10 Large Companies

1. Costco (Issaquah, WA)

2. Google (Mountain View, CA)

3. T-Mobile (Bellevue, WA)

4. HubSpot (Cambridge, MA)

5. Aflac (Columbus, GA)

6. Insight Global (Atlanta, GA)

7. Intuit (Mountain View, CA)

8. Salesforce (San Francisco, CA)

9. Blizzard Entertainment (Irvine, CA)

10. Starbucks (Seattle, WA)

Source: Comparably, Best Places to Work 2018 

(NOTE: See the full list of 50 large sized companies profiled at

Table 2: Best Places to Work Overall - Top 10 Small/Mid-Size Companies

1. Highspot (Seattle, WA)

2. Drift (Boston, MA)

3. SendGrid (Denver, CO)

4. TripActions (Palo Alto, CA)

5. Phenom People (Ambler, PA)

6. Pipedrive (New York, NY)

7. (San Francisco, CA)

8. CultureIQ (New York, NY)

9. Sitetracker (Palo Alto, CA)

10. Greenhouse Software, Inc. (New York, NY)

Source: Comparably, Best Places to Work 2018

(NOTE: See the full list of 50 small-medium sized companies profiled at


So what is the “secret” to being a best company to work for? In sum, while the best organizations are in all lines of businesses and are both recognizable brand names and firms that you have likely never heard of, there is a commonality. As Jason Nazar, CEO and cofounder of Comparably recently commented to USA Today on the results of his firm’s analysis, the common thread between a Costco (the highest ranked large company) and Highspot (the top ranked small-mid-sized firm) is the fact that employees feel truly connected to their company, and they feel that the connection is mutual - and meaningful. Family is a term that is waaaaaaaaaay overused in management today. However, in the best of companies, this feeling is genuine - and “family” is an accurate description of their organizational cultures - and not just a platitude used by executives.

And so is it really that simple to create an excellent organization? Is it no more complex than following just one piece of management advice - the Golden Rule (“In everything, then, do to others as you would have them do to you.” --- Matthew 7:12)? 

In reality, the answer is that good management is - or rather can be - just that straightforward. But this is not easy by any means, as it takes continuous efforts to listen to employees and to their needs and take actions - meaningful and yes, sometimes costly actions - to support them. That is the only way an organization - and every employee within it - can truly be at its best. If you want to improve any performance metric - productivity, customer satisfaction, turnover, etc., you have to focus not just on the single measure, but on the global one - that being having a workplace culture that truly supports and enables the best possible employee performance. 

Long ago, I heard Tom Peters deliver a talk on what makes companies “excellent.” He said it came down to one basic test: “Would you want your son or daughter to work there?” Now, as a wiser, more-experienced, AARP-eligible management expert with two working sons, I can safely say that Peter’s question should be the one that is foremost in the minds of executives and leaders of any organization. If your company, your agency, your non-profit organization passes the “Tom Test,” then you are on your way. If not, then you really, really need to rethink what you are doing and the culture of your organization before any real, tangible, and lasting performance improvements can be made. In short, creating the right environment for your people to thrive is far, far more important than anything else you can do as a manager - anything!

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