Whole Foods, REI, and Aflac CEOs Respond: What’s the Single Most Important Thing For Company Culture?

March 25, 2017, 4:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Whole Foods Market

What makes one company a vibrant, exciting, inclusive place to build a career and another a staid, repressive, and exclusionary work environment that tears through employees like disposable napkins?

There are many factors, but increasingly, CEOs are realizing that the difference between the two does not come down to freebies like expensed food, yoga classes, and unlimited vacation days (which too often go untouched). Perks are great, but they’re not a replacement for more meaningful indicators that a company cares, supports, and listens to its employees.

When compiling this year’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For, we found that the companies which made the list were, in general, good at creating feelings of trust as well as maintaining real, sustained efforts to build a diverse workforce.

So we asked all 100 CEOs who made the grade the same key question: “What’s the single most important thing you do for company culture?” Below, 10 of the most compelling answers.


Steven Booth, CEO of Baird (ranked #4): “Without a doubt our greatest advantage is our employee-owned business model. Every Baird associate has the opportunity to become a shareholder and 67% of our associates currently are. This means our associates are engaged, have a stake in the business and succeed when our clients succeed.”

Jim Weddle, managing partner of Edward Jones (ranked #5) : “Unlike most in our industry, we have chosen to remain a privately-held partnership with about 20,000 limited partners today. You can’t buy shares in Edward Jones; you earn the partnership opportunity by doing a great job and contributing to our success. Our partnership is the foundation for a culture of collaboration and caring. Rather than compete, we work together in the best interests of our clients. Partnership encourages mentoring across the firm by giving us all a stake in our success. We believe owners act differently from employees, demonstrating their pride in the work we do and bringing their A game every day.”

Benjamin M. Salzmann, CEO of Acuity Insurance (ranked #9):The single thing we do that’s had the biggest impact is conveying that ACUITY LOVES YOU … This is a very vulnerable statement that also commits us to pursue their best interests in health care, career opportunities, well-being in the workplace, family, camaraderie, and trust.”

James Goodnight, CEO of SAS (ranked #15) “We want our employees to wake up every morning be excited about coming to work. If they feel valued and as though they’re making a difference, they will make a difference. We believe happy and healthy people have a passionate engagement with life, and bring that to work. That’s why we’ve stayed focused on every aspect of the employee experience, from inspiring work, to the freedom to take chances to an extraordinary work environment.”

Aneel Bhusri, CEO or Workday (ranked #18): “Hiring people whose personal values and traits align with our culture. My Co-Founder Dave Duffield and I interviewed the first 500 employees to ensure we had a rock solid foundation of people who would hire the next 5,000 and carry on our culture.”

Jerry Stritzke, CEO of REI (ranked #28): “Living by our values. Every decision we make at the co-op is purpose-driven and it impacts our culture every single day. A great example is #OptOutside. In 2015, we chose to close our doors on Black Friday and give our employees a day off to spend outside with loved ones. It was a way to show what we stand for and give people an option that wasn’t standing in line at a busy checkout counter.”

Mark Weinberger, CEO of EY (ranked #29): “It’s important for all of us to participate in conversations close to home that can be uncomfortable and possibly messy, but that’s where we learn. And the feeling of safety and security that comes with an inclusive, respectful culture lets those conversations happen.”

Terry Turner, CEO of Pinnacle Financial Partners (ranked #34): “100 percent of non-commissioned associates participate in annual cash incentives that are targeted to be 10-20 percent of base pay. This is virtually unheard of in the financial services industry. While the metrics that determine the amount of incentive payout are largely corporate measures, all associates are educated in our three-day orientation program on how their individual roles contribute to those corporate measures. In addition, every associate at Pinnacle is an owner and gets to participate in the wealth we are building. Being an owner is meaningfully different than having a job. So every associate at Pinnacle receives restricted shares of Pinnacle stock at the time of their employment. Every year thereafter they receive an annual grant. By owning shares in Pinnacle, our associates have a vested interest in not just acting like owners, they are owners.”

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods (ranked #58): “More than ever, people want to know that the work they’re doing is contributing to the greater good. Whole Foods Market’s clear sense of purpose and strong commitment to our Core Values helps our Team Members connect their work directly to positive impacts on their local and global communities, and I think that makes for a great place to work.”

Dan Amos, CEO of Aflac (ranked #91): “With information so accessible you need to be able to keep up with current workplace trends and wherever possible, exceed them. Your employees will know what is available to employees at other companies and if you don’t want them looking for other options you need to provide competitive compensation, good healthcare benefits and a secure, diverse workplace.”