8 Pillars to Community & Culture Building

Over the last 7 years, luck punched me hard and gave me the chance to interact and work with over 1,000 individuals, companies, and organizations across 6 continents. I talked with struggling tech startups and founders about their favorite top ramen flavors. I held countless skype calls with organizations and corporate partners to talk shop. I conversed with community leaders, activists, and city officials to get a pulse of why the homeless continued to suffer in cities. Foundations and investors schooled me on where money flowed. Panels with a Rabbi, a Priest, and a Buddhist Monk lectured on peace. Restaurant owners gave me free food all the time (no complaints there). I had a front row seat every day to this world of amazing people doing amazing things.

Over 7 years, one common thread sewed together these experiences:


Palpable culture and resilient community always stood as the foundation for impact at work. I want to share my experiences over the last 7 years actively building and learning about collaborative communities, at its finest and worst moments. I do not consider myself a deep scholar of culture and community building. I’m just a huge fan.

As a huge fan, I dissected and distilled these experiences, and arrived at 8 distinct culture and community categories that always linked into the DNA of particularly amazing companies, initiatives, and movements. Every group that nailed culture and community building touched on at least 6 of these categories. The best harnessed them all masterfully.

Examples of standard outcomes as a result of totally crushing culture and community building?

  • High retention in members (ex: employees, customers, attendees, patrons)
  • Extremely powerful, self-perpetuated Word of Mouth (WOM).
  • High conversion in transactions (ex: employment, sales, tickets, donations)
  • Better overall business growth and people performance
  • Better impact and innovation
  • Happier people, more smiles
  • More babies (I cannot confirm this one, but I’m sure it happened with all of the feel goods of being part of something amazing. Just a speculation.)

This post will introduce these categories to get you started on your journey to creating amazing culture and community in whatever you do. These tenets don’t only apply to companies and organizations. The concepts can adapt to any situation that you want to inject a healthy dose of culture and community; this for the school teacher, the event planner, the neighborhood parent’s association, even your local reading club.

Over the next 2 months, I will be releasing deeper dives into each category. From interviews with people I consider community and culture superheroes, to fun infographics, I hope you can extrapolate what you find helpful, and empower the community you belong to.

For the meantime, here are the 8 Pillars!

The following 8 pillars were derived from 7 years of interactions with 1000’s of individuals in different communities around the US and other countries. The category orders do not represent any significance, however, do have some logic in how they can be clustered for certain resource allocation (IE Community Rhythms and Peer to Peer Support can be completely self-organized and activated by community members rather than leadership). Following this diagram, we dive into an introduction of each category.

The 8 Pillars of Community & Culture Building

The 8 Pillars of Community & Culture Building


Feel Right at Home: Make Placemaking a Priority

I’m not going to tell you to buy bean bags and ping pong tables. Don’t go out and purchase art installations and cool furniture just yet. I want to tell you whyphysical transformations matter. From there, you can make a judgment on what will enhance your particular situation.

A strange vanity trend spawned out of the San Francisco Bay Area tech industry over the last 12 years, where campuses felt compelled to create a wonderland of sorts, with all sorts of toys, free stuff, and amenities. And yet, many humbler settings have happier teams and better performance. Why? Because these foosball-purchasing companies missed the point.

Key Principle: master placemaking by imagining your physical space as a living, breathing collaborator.

When you make this mental shift, space management becomes placemaking, and your whole community feels right at home.

The Vienna Impact Hub Meeting Area — Sleek, casual, and you feel right at home.

The Vienna Impact Hub Meeting Area — Sleek, casual, and you feel right at home.

Your space becomes your best team member, your best friend, your best host. This powerful vantage point can now validate or invalidate your decision to buy that retro Pac Man arcade. What purpose does it fulfill? Does your fancy office chair provide anything beyond looks and comfort? Or can it actively empower a brainstorming session; IDEO crammed a brainstorming room with intentionally uncomfortable furniture, so people would spend more time moving around and sharing ideas! Pine over empty space and walkways through the office; a friend and powerhouse architect designer, Nambi Gardner, once explained to me that she used her past experience in ballet to imagine how she moved through space before putting pen to paper.

Next time you take a tour of a what you deem to be a “cool office space,” use the key principle as your critical lens. Make your space into a Co-Pilot, and you have a made it into true place.


Make Awesome People Awesomer: Provide Capacity Building and Development

Let’s imagine you have an event planning group that creates events with paid content. Your whole focus is to nail this content and the logistics. But you still have a staff, you have volunteers. It’s all a grind — who has the time to organize workshops for the team when you need the team to focus on bringing the goods to paid attendees?

If you want your amazing team and volunteers to come back year after year, with high morale, and great customer service, you can not think of capacity building and development as a nice to have. It fundamentally belongs in the program. If you add even a tiny investment of capacity building and development for the team (EX: requiring every volunteer and staff member to take breaks and attend speeches or network of their interest), your return on investment and time put into the organization of the actual event will come back in multiples. Why? Because when a human being learns and fulfills a natural desire to improve, everything improves: mood, temperament, motivation, even digestion!

Key Principle: capacity building and development nourish a human’s natural hunger to learn and grow.

Once this happens, you bring the best version of them to the community.

Einstein stopped learning at age 76.

Einstein stopped learning at age 76.

Because your staff and volunteers see the investment you have put into them, they want to reciprocate with effort. And now this effort comes from sharper, more discerning individuals. A complete cycle. From having a rotating library like Zappos (I personally love Tribal Leadership), to issuing group passes to online courses like One Month, to inviting a workshop facilitator, all kinds of ideas and methods, big and small, can fulfill a small void with big impact.

Letting this human need to learn go unfulfilled in any type of community will produce disastrous outcomes. Think zombies; unmotivated, mindless, partially nourished. Build the capacity of your team. Develop their minds. Prevent the zombie apocalypse.


Explode Minds: Create Exposure to Thought Innovation

Wait, didn’t we just talk about capacity building and development?

This is a closely related cousin. It fulfills a different human hunger: curiosity for the unknown. The evolution of your culture and community relies on incrementally increasing the ideas you can create together. When individuals get exposed to the phenomenal, they always bring a little back with them. And when you have an organization that clusters innovative pieces together, new and great things become realized. Just ask Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From. If capacity building & development builds smarter humans, then thought innovation inspires them to take their new smarts, and use it to actually do or make something.

Key Principle: ignite a human’s untapped innovation by exposing them to world-leading thought innovation.

Everybody has nascent ideas; awaken it, and the whole community benefits from better ideas and possible discovery.

Once an idea ignites, an explosion of other ideas will follow.

Once an idea ignites, an explosion of other ideas will follow.

Think of thought innovation as big ideas on display. How do you create exposure to big ideas on display? Plenty of ways. Buy group tickets to important keynote speeches. Invite speakers with big ideas to come talk to your team. Take the whole gang to an exciting product launch that introduces earth-shattering inventions. Start small. Like sending your favorite TED clips to your team once a week. Keep an eye on your city’s calendar of events that roll through. Don’t be afraid to think out of the box; doing a group trip to see a thought-provoking stand-up comedian can inspire just as many ideas. Be brave. Be innovative. Your community will flourish.


Not Your Average Drum Circle: Establish Community Rhythms

If familiarity breeds attraction, then rhythm creates familiarity. Community rhythms create something to consistently look forward to. A sense of comfort comes with rhythm. In its musical sense, it has the power to physically move someone (don’t act like you don’t bob your head to Beyonce). Community rhythms can be as simple as a weekly breakfast pow-wow in a meeting room or a coffee shop down the street. It can get as active as a monthly team yoga class that happens during the lunch break.

Jeff — some people are too busy for this. And my company is way too big. We have over 5,000 people.

I hear you. You don’t want to force a team member to participate. That’s the magic of community rhythms. Rhythms help leaders come full circle. It helps you gauge and hone your understanding of your team members. If you organize a weekly ribbon-making lesson, and no one shows up, maybe your team demographic lacks interest in simple crafts. Then you try organizing weekly make-your-own-burritos in the lunch room, and everybody shows up. Now you learned more about your team. If you have 5,000, that provides you an opportunity to magnify the diverse preferences of your team. It takes a lot more work, but with a 5,000 person team, you will find plenty of eager enthusiasts to host various rhythms. Or if you have the budget, pay people to come in and do it! The benefits of reinforced culture and internal community bonds trickle throughout an organization’s infrastructure. Don’t skimp on rhythms.

Key Principle: community rhythms sustain culture and community through reliable, recurring, low touch, and familiar activity.

Create a consistent schedule to refuel groups and maintain energy and excitement throughout the community.

Rhythms bring people together regularly. This is Impact Hub Bucharest’s Sexy Salad, a weekly salad potluck.

Rhythms bring people together regularly. This is Impact Hub Bucharest’s Sexy Salad, a weekly salad potluck.

Rhythms take time to master and a lot of experimenting. Just like any experiment, you will learn so much along the way, and continue to make improvements and adjustments. Get creative. Get volunteers to organize. Allocate resources. Don’t see this as an entertainment expense, but serious team building investment that refuels a team’s excitement on a repeated basis.

While this is a fixed schedule of reinforcement, we will also talk about a variable ratio reinforcement method that sends jolts of energy through the organization.


Better Together: Arrange Peer-Driven Support Structures and Initiatives

When a community first forms with 2 or 3 people, that’s all they have: each other. They learn from each other, build things together, bounce ideas off one another. As the community builds out further, and more people join, the resource of ‘people’ becomes more abundant. Abundance disperses responsibility of taking care one another, and a bystander effect takes place. You often see organizations, teams, even neighborhood communities (think of the relationships within a small town versus a big city) lose the spirit of peers supporting one another, because hey, someone else will do it. An organization will often build and grow quickly without establishing an intentional peer to peer driven structure and initiatives, and often more than not, apathy ensues. Disengaged leadership structures forms, sub-circles of individuals form passive sub-cultures. Establishing culture at all levels matters, especially as the community becomes a size that becomes unmanageable through one channel.

Key Principle: Intentional structures for peers to actively engage and support one another must be established early on.

Central leadership cannot possibly disperse support to an entire group, making community allocation absolutely paramount.

Peer to peer support groups provide benefits beyond emotional and professional support. Get creative. Encourage peers to self-organize everything from creativity groups that inspire one another’s work, all the way to common hobby groups (ex: it just takes 2 people who enjoy crocheting with straw to make a basket club). Heck, you can even start a beginner-cooks club (I even have a post that can get you started!). Even remote organizations have the power of online sub-groups. Many conferences now host several peer created and facilitated discussion sessions. Set up a lever that allows peers to easily form groups and find internal resources that can support their effort. From here, community leaders only need to positively reinforce the peer efforts happening through the organization.

Everybody needs a Yoda: Encourage Mentoring and Advisory

Every community and culture that survived generation after generation had one thing in common: great teachers. In various folklore and historical accounts, generals, leaders, and kings seemed to take a spotlight in activity, because of the whole conquering and pillaging thing. Behind these kings, teachers, mentors, and advisor guided these entire communities. In Chinese culture, people revere the teacher as much as the CEO of a company. Confucius, one of the most celebrated teachers in history, has his own holiday and even practiced philosophy (some even consider religion). In many places around the world, formal education continues on average through someone’s early 20’s. But as Albert Einstein said, once you stop learning, you die. Thus the emergence and necessity of mentors and advisors beyond the formal education years.

Key Principle: Great societies and communities have discerning and thoughtful individuals. While leaders eventually create direction, mentors and advisors initially mold the foundation for these individuals.

Encourage active outreach and create opportunities in which individuals can connect with people they can heed advice from. Continue their desire to learn.

Creating mentoring and advisory opportunities can be as simple as creating a contact list with brief profiles. Some communities share their mentoring networks publicly like Dave McClure’s 500 startups. Set up potlucks and lunches where your community members can match up with mentors on the spot. The bottom line goal: continue their passion for learning. Once a person feels they can no longer learn in an environment, they will wither away, become devoid, or they will simply leave.


Hugs and Handshakes: Organize Opportunities for Personal and Professional Connections

Networking sucks. I shudder every time I hear the word. If you find me at a “networking” event, I probably made a b-line straight to the food and booze first. When people attach the word ‘networking’ to events, it establishes so many preconceptions and expectations that cripple the process; canned introductions, greeting formalities, stock business cards. Everything becomes boring and tired.

I like making it human again. I want to find and meet people I truly enjoy on a personal level, and that bring no preconceptions to the conversation about one another’s professional craft. I find it immensely pleasant when 10 minutes into a conversation, both parties continue to not mention or ask about “what” each of us “does” respectively. A genuine interest about “who” each of us “is” guides the conversation. And this frame of thought needs to guide the personal and professional connecting you encourage within your organization.

Connecting with other humans gives people a sense of foundation and it enables growth. These connections can even extend beyond the community itself, creating external opportunities for the whole organization. Go beyond staff introductions during the onboarding process. Regularly host personal or professional story exchanges. Encourage the culture of building genuine relationships, as opposed to belabored networking.

Key Principle: Skip networking. Create genuine connection. Professional connection provides growth. Personal connection provides foundation.

A well situated and rooted individual helps surrounding people and the whole company grow.

The Galapagos Islands proved once you mix species together closely, natural exchange and connections will happen.

The Galapagos Islands proved once you mix species together closely, natural exchange and connections will happen.

Don’t stop at basic get-togethers. Get creative with how you regularly connect your team members. Using story as a running foundation, have people submit quick blurbs or glimpses into conversations they had, and compile an annual yearbook where people can look back and admire the personal and professional diversity of their community. Host themed-BBQs where people need to magic marker blank white shirts to wear and illustrate their story. Go beyond the name tags and business cards. Tap into the various depths of being human, and real connections will happen. The stronger the synapses become between each individual, the stronger your community and culture become altogether.


Party Time, Excellent: Reinforce, Reward, and Celebrate

Everybody experienced this at one point: you finally accomplish something big at your job that took months of work, brainstorming, and manual labor; the results bring about great returns for the company as a whole, but when you bring word of it to your boss, they respond with, “Cool, nice work.” Sometimes maybe just a nod. Examples like this illustrate how the culture of celebrating has all but died in the workplace.

A community becomes stale and dry without ways to intentionally reinforce, reward, and celebrate. Accomplishments and other desired community behavior deserves more than a handshake and thank you emails. Reinforce behaviors that bring about desired outcomes. Properly celebrate great outcomes. Plan with intention: create variable ratio reinforcement schedules, attribute reward response to significant achievement triggers, and celebrate and gather your community as one entity when appropriate. This culture of celebrating creates a physical manifestation and remind your team of why you all do what you do, your common mission and purpose together.

Key Principle: Reinforce desired behaviors, reward great outcomes, and celebrate significant events.

When planned purposefully, expect successful behaviors and outcomes to repeat, and your community to bond more than ever.


So what do you do beyond the occasional slap on the back and a group-wide thank you emails? It an be as simple as a pizza party or a community box of donut holes with a frosting thank you note written on them (a letter per donut!). You can have your team ditch work for the day, and take everybody to an afternoon baseball game in the bleacher seats, or to an afternoon show. Never underestimate a giant ice cream cake. Barney Stinson is onto something with Laser Tag. Know the profile of your team, decide on a method, and joyfully interrupt the day with celebration.


Pick a Category and Start!

Now that you have introduced yourself to the 8 pillars, which areas do you think you lack the most structure? What areas can quickly improve? I suggest finding some low hanging fruit, and start from there. Find other community and culture enthusiasts in your group (these folks will probably become your People Leaders later on). If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions, please leave a comment below. Don’t forget to send me some Hearts and love as well!

Again, this post will be subject to editing every once in a while, when I find new cool information, or think of stuff to add,

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Quick note on my background in community:

I am an early management and operating team member of the San Francisco Bay Area Impact Hubs (Berkeley and San Francisco) and helped kick off the East Coast Impact Hubs (Primarily Philadelphia). I also consulted Canadian, US, Mexican, and various South American Impact Hub founders. After this experience, I continue to consult different teams on starting Impact Hubs around the states and the world, such as Austin (Texas, US), Santa Barbara (California, US), and Accra (Ghana, West Africa). I also recently wrapped a project with Delivering Happiness focused on developing growth strategy, technique, and mindset for the team. I currently work with LATE NITE ART in bringing fun, memorable, empathetic team building programs to various groups of humans, including corporations and conferences.