Just read a very intriguing post here on Forbes by Jacquelyn Smith about those companies rated as ‘best places to work’ by their employees (in Glassdoor’s Employee Choice Awards). And I’m clearly not the only person who’s found it intriguingit’s well on its way to getting 200,000 page views.

I’ve noticed that ‘best company’ lists and articles usually get a lot of trafficand it got me thinking about why we’re so interested in this topic. I believe it’s because we’re curious about how our company measures up. If we don’t like where we work, we either want to justify our dislike (“Seemy company isn’t anything like this: no wonder I hate going to work in the morning!”) or get clearer about the source of our negativity (“Ah! That’s why I feel so depressed working here.”) If we do like our companyour motivations are the same: we either want to justify our affection (“See—my company is just like this: no wonder I enjoy going to work in the morning!”) or get clearer about the source of our happiness (“Ah! That’s why I like working here.”).

There’s another, even more useful way we can approach articles like this, though. We can use them as models for what we want to create in our lives. And by that I mean, the more we understand the elements that make a company a great place to work, the more we’ll be able to either make our company more like that orif that doesn’t seem likelyto find a company to work for that already is like that. In the service of that purpose, I found the final sentence of Jacelyn’s article particularly helpful. She quotes Samantha Zupan, a spokesperson for Glassdoor, who says:

…we see employees across all 50 companies speak favorably about mission-driven company cultures, opportunities for career advancement, great colleagues and challenging work environments…

The italics are mine; my own experience fully supports Zupan’s summary of Glassdoor’s findings. These four elements come up time and time again in conversations with folks we coach, consult with or train, at all levels. People want to build and work for companies that (1) have a strong positive culture, firmly grounded in a meaningful purpose, (2) offer real chances to grow professionally, (3) provide the opportunity to work with people they like and respect, and (4) offer work that requires them to stretch their brains and skills.

I thought it might be helpful to ‘unpack’ these four things a bit more, so that you can think about how to make them happen in your current company, or so that you’ll know what to look for if you’re investigating new job opportunities.


A strong positive culture, firmly grounded in a meaningful purpose. ’Culture’ has, too often, come to mean ‘perks.’ But while a ping-pong table in the break room and coupons for burgers are funthey’re not the core of a great culture. What people are looking for is an environment that supports and rewards excellence, honesty, mutual support, and fair dealing; where people get great results and they’re treated well….and neither is optional. Truly strong cultures are supported from the C-suite on down: the employees report that their bossand their boss’ boss, and so onlive by the espoused values. That’s when a culture comes alive. People also want to feel that their strong culture exists to support meaningful work. For example, Twitter, ranked second on Glassdoor’s list, has a sentence on the company website that says, “At Twitter, your work will be immediately felt by many millions of people around the globe.” That’s meaningful.

Real chances to grow professionally. Although great companies focus on providing substantive growth opportunities for their employees, this doesn’t necessarily mean ‘career pathing’ in the traditional sense. Good managers in excellent companies look for ways to match employees’ skills and passions with the organization’s needs. They do this through good old-fashioned observation and conversation. They observe what needs to get done at the company that’s not getting done, or not getting done well. They talk with other managers and leaders to find out about new initiatives or projects that might need people. They observe what the employee is good at doing. They converse with the employee to find out what he or she is interested in learning or doing, and how he or she would like to see his or her career unfold. Voila: a match.

The opportunity to work with people you like and respect. This one has both a universal and a personal aspect. The universal: excellent companies generally have a firm “no a**hole” rule. They don’t hire people who are dishonest, narcissistic, abusive, prejudiced, lazy, etc. Beyond that, “people you like and respect” is more individual. For instance, some companies tend to hire fun-loving, informal, uninhibited people. Other companies hire more serious, reserved, intellectual people. It’s important to know your own preferenceswhat sort of people you tend to resonate withwhen looking to build or join a company. Let’s say, for example, you like late-night brainstorming sessions, far-ranging conversations about topics both personal and professional, and people who are willing to change course at a moment’s notice. If you go to work for a company where people like to play by the rules, enjoy working together during the day and going home at night, and tend to keep their work and private lives pretty separate…it could be a great company, but you still probably wouldn’t be happy there.

Work that requires you to stretch your brain and skills. Human beings are wired to overcome challenges; it’s a deep survival mechanism that has allowed us to successfully adapt to new environments again and again over the millenia. So it makes sense that we want this in our jobs, too: we like to figure things out, to get good at things, to crack codes and solve problems and make breakthroughs. Great companies don’t assume that people are slackers who just want to do the least possible to get by: they recognize and call upon this built-in human attraction to challenging work. An employee from Bain & Co., ranked first in Glassdoor’s survey, commented of his work at Bain, “There is rarely a boring day, much less a boring project.” Being consistently and fully engagedthat’s what almost all of us want.

It seems simple when you lay it out like this: a great company is a place you can do great things while having a great time, with others who want the same. But it’s not easy to create this simple, powerful thingit requires real focus and consistent effort on the part of the company’s leadership to build the needed structures, processes and systems; to hire the right people with the right attitudes and the rights skills; and to inspire and hold people accountable every day to the high standards you’ve set.

But that investment pays off tremendously: you end up with a company that attracts the best talent, creates excellent products and services, and figures out how to do it better, faster, and smarter than the rest.