We had been invited to meet with senior leaders at two large organizations. One meeting was scheduled for the morning and another for the afternoon.

I prepped for the visit by researching both companies. However, I tried not to let this research get in the way of how I understood their operations. I wanted to view them as purely as possible.

Enter Company #1

We walk in and immediately take note of appearance. Contemporary furniture filled the room and tasteful artwork adorned the walls. Classical music hung in the air as we were greeted by an attentive, impeccably dressed individual at the front desk. We were even offered refreshments. They had everything going for them so far!

But, in spite of the meticulous attention to detail and professionalism, there was something off. There was a chill in the air that caused me to bristle, and I’m not talking about the work of a sadistic air conditioner.

We met with a senior leader. As expected, he was prompt and cordial. This is when it clicked.

It was the workplace atmosphere: too perfect, too formal, too by-the-book. Everyone had their “marching orders” and duties were carried out in robotic fashion. You could practically smell the stale odor of hierarchy. I’m sure that if a single chair was askew for just a moment, there’d be hell to pay.

Our conversation with the senior leader unfolded and he revealed the company’s challenges in finding new associates who met their expectations. It was as if he was saying, “you need us more than we need you” to all potential employees. A dire mistake.

It became obvious as to why the company struggled with employee attraction.

Enter Company #2

Similar to the morning visit, we were met by contemporary furniture and artwork upon our entrance. I guess nice chairs and pretty pictures are an industry standard.

The front desk attendants were dressed casually but still looked professional. Their greeting was warm and genuine; complemented with a smile. I didn’t recall seeing many smiles, if any, during the morning visit.

The senior leader who called the meeting greeted us and lead us to an open area to speak. It was like a quaint, Italian plaza: people laughing, drinking coffee, and collaborating on projects. It felt comfortable and communal.

A stark difference between this company and the first was employee interaction. Everyone seemed to appreciate each other’s company. There was a real sense of camaraderie.

As we spoke to the senior leader, we took note of his confidence and humility. He was not afraid to admit the errors made by the company and immediately expounded upon his commitments to resolving them.

The whole experience radiated a bright sincerity. Nothing was forced or faked. Everyone wanted to be there. To be honest, I didn’t want to leave!

Consider Company Culture

When I reflected on the two visits, it was by no means a mystery as to which company would successfully attract and retain employees far into the future.

The problem is that there are many companies like the first place we visited who’ve experienced a long history of success and, therefore, have adopted this air of self-righteousness and elitism. In their eyes, you must conform to their standards because they’re the successful ones doing everything right.

Inevitably, this “holier than thou” attitude bled into the workplace atmosphere and made it an uncomfortable place to be. In contrast, the general attitude at company #2 was more inclusive, more genuine. This generated an atmosphere that I simply didn’t want to leave.

The key takeaway here is simple: culture reflects leadership and mindset, and maintaining a positive culture is essential to attracting and retaining employees across all generations.