The Art of Building a People-First Culture

Written by: Courtney Graham, Chief People Officer


A little over two years ago, I wasn’t looking for a job. I wasn’t looking for a job until I walked into the doors of Four Winds Interactive (FWI). As an HR professional whose main focus is to create an environment that fully engages employees, I was immediately blown away by the technology I saw on display. It was sharp, sleek and downright sexy. And then…I met the people. Bright, bold and brilliant.   

From an HR perspective, I love our technology. I love our product. I love the way we push information to our audience, driving intentional behavior. Our people can also interact with our software to pull information that is engaging to them. But we all know that a product does not make a company. The brilliance of a company happens when an innovative product collides with talented and happy people.  

Here at FWI, we empower people and companies to communicate messages that inform, inspire and connect their audiences. As the Chief People Officer at FWI, I could not be prouder to be part of this team and to be part of building a place where people want to come to work every day.  

Over the past 24 months, we have been laser-focused on increasing the levels of employee engagement and have seen significant results. We’ve watched our employee engagement scores increase by over 900%. We have focused on improving levels of collaboration, spent time understanding career progression and created a variety of platforms for developing our top talent. We have measured the progress of these areas over the last 24 months and have seen substantial increases in all these areas, momentum we are excited about.  

We started this journey by going on a listening tour. As the head of people, I personally met with every employee and asked three questions.  

  1. What do you love about FWI, and what keeps you here? 
  2. If you were hired as head of people, what would be your number-one focus? 
  3. And finally, what’s missing for you? What would cause you to take that phone call from a recruiter? 

Based on the themes that came out of those conversations, other employee engagement data points (exit data, annual surveys, etc.), direction from leadership and understanding our business growth strategy, we birthed our people strategy. A roadmap to becoming a stronger, more intentional, people-first company.     

Our people strategy focuses on three areas; recruitment, engagement and development of talent. Under each of those pillars, we create very specific goals with key deliverables. One of our first tasks was to get better data. At the time, we only had an annual employee engagement survey that had guided areas of focus for people and culture. While that’s helpful, its only one snapshot in time so we knew that we needed something timelier. So, the first thing we did was implement a quarterly eNPS (employee net promoter score) survey. We built it in-house and asked one question, would you recommend FWI as a great place to work? With that quarterly data, we acknowledge the company score but then we dug into the department levels, so we really understood the pulse of the company. We also evaluated the commentary, which has proved to be incredibly valuable. We look for positive and negative themes and from there, work with leaders to create action plans that are specific to their teams.  

While not inclusive of everything we have done, some of the initial things we focused on were celebrating and promoting our employee brand which has a direct link to attracting top talent, developing a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) plan, revamping our employee benefits package, building career progression tracks and implementing programs to proactively retain our top talent.  

Employee Brand and Attracting Talent 

We partnered with Marketing and built a very deliberate social media campaign showcasing our people and culture, not only inside the walls of FWI but who our people are outside of work too. We did everything from highlighting the fun things we do in the office (themed Townhalls, flannel Fridays, cookoffs, etc.) to spotlighting new hires by showcasing unique facts about them. The results… we have organically increased our social media following on LinkedIn by 3x.  

As part of our recruitment strategy, we have been intentional about getting involved in our community. From partnering with companies like Built-in Colorado to speaking on panels to participating in Denver Start Up Week, I have found that being active in the tech community is a critical piece to staying relevant. Sharing ideas and learning from others has been invaluable. In fact, we have even started a variety of our own thought leadership focus groups where we invite other companies to our office space and we share best practices about people, culture and more.  

In parallel with promoting our people and culture, we have spent quite a bit of time streamlining our interview process. We incorporated a research-based methodology for conducting interviews along with introducing tools that support meaningful conversations with candidates. Some of those improvements include hosting kick-off meetings, producing interview guides that link competencies to success in the role, hosting structured debriefs, conducting interview training and facilitating retrospectives when we make a hire and then realize it wasn’t the right fit.  As far as recruitment metrics, the two I have found most useful are quality of hire and candidate experience. We have put a lot of energy into nailing the interviewing process and strongly feel the ROI is tenfold.  

Diversity and Inclusion  

The committee is comprised of a Chair and Co-Chair, a variety of internal stakeholders and executive sponsors who spent 2018 focused on creating a foundation that can be built on for years to come. The team rotates out on an annual basis and like the people strategy, they have three pillars of focus with a variety of initiatives under each of them. The three pillars are: 

  • Learn: Educate our larger team to develop a common language to comfortably discuss topics of diversity, equity and inclusion.  
  • Show Up: Build relationships and engage with the community purposely. 
  • Celebrate: Honor similarities and differences in thought and experiences.   

In addition to creating a framework to guide our D&I efforts, we also felt it was important to identify and live our purpose. Our DE&I purpose statement is:  

Our zeal for inclusion fuels our best work. 

  • We are champions of one another and of diverse thought.
  • We are committed to evolving and learning together.
  • We bring empathy and innovation to our clients and communities around the world.


Based on employee feedback and having a desire to be competitive in the local tech industry, we completely revamped our benefits package. Changes made to our plan included moving from accrued PTO to a flexible leave policy, we tripled our 401K match and introduced a variety of family-friendly benefits. We also spent time and energy marketing these changes—everything from promoting them on our digital signs to creating colorful brochures that we pass out to candidates who interview at FWI. Our campaign for the first year was We Heard You, as most of the changes were directly correlated to employee feedback.  

Career Progression 

Our talent philosophy at FWI is simple. It’s a partnership. A partnership between the employee and the company. One of my favorite quotes is “You are 100% responsible for your career success.”  Harsh, but so true. AND, FWI is 100% responsible for creating an environment that allows employees to flourish both personally and professionally.  

Over the past couple of years, we got really clear on what excellence looks like in each role. Our first step was to create a job matrix for each job family. These matrices outline the key areas of responsibility for each level of job. While they include the technical responsibilities of the job, they also address key behaviors that correlate with success in the role. This clarity takes the ambiguity out of questions like “What’s the difference between a software developer and a senior software developer?” It also helps managers have difficult conversations that are often related to behavioral things which can be challenging to address.  


One of the things that I’m confident all companies want to do is retain their top talent. We have worked hard to create an environment where our best people want to stay. That’s always challenging because it requires us to create a climate that balances the right level of pressure—the kind that pushes each employee to be a little better every day—with a culture that also embraces a lot of levity.  

We got feedback that our employees wanted more opportunities to build relationships at different levels of the organization. So early on, we created a variety of opportunities for people to connect. Considering the entire employee experience, we started with orientation, where we completely revamped our process so that it was focused on making it experiential and included gamification. We also introduced a sidekick program so that from day one, new hires are paired up with another person in a different part of the organization. Then, we created space for other interactions like hosting regular coffee talks with leadership, a forum for anyone to attend and ask David Levin, our CEO, anything top of mind. We have found that simple, meaningful interactions have a significant impact.  

On a more formal front, I am super proud of the things we have developed and implemented. We created a podcast to deliver training that includes three elements:  

  1. Provides knowledge (usually technical/related to our product)that will move our business forward. 
  2. Highlights and recognizes people in our company who are subject matter experts. 
  3. Creates empathy and insight across the company and into areas that employees may not be familiar with.  

Our first podcast was on our elevator pitch. We decided to start with the basics, a unified approach to talking about who we are and what we do.  From there were moved on to our software and the second one was titled, “The Minds Behind our Software.” We have had so much fun with this medium for delivering training and it’s such a scalable way to do it!  

A few of the other things we have done include creating a Speaker Series where we have internal and external speakers share stories and experiences with the company, we launched an Emerging Leaders program that consists of less than 20 top performers who are individual contributors, and we established a New Manager Bootcamp, a program that teaches new managers the nuts and bolts of leadership.  

So how do we continue to maintain and strengthen a people-first culture? That’s a daunting question. Work environments and people are constantly changing, requiring continuous effort and attention. As mentioned above when sharing my thoughts on our talent philosophy, it’s a partnership. A partnership between the employees and the company.   

Every single one of us at FWI contributes to making this a great place to work. It’s how we show up and it’s how we interact with each other. While this may sound cliché, we make this a great place to work by intentionally living our values. At FWI, that starts with bringing your best self, seeing it from other people’s perspectives, owning your stake in the game, crushing assignments and most importantly, doing it all with grace. As a People Ops team and as a leader in the company, we must continuously listen to our people, pay attention to their needs and adjust our focus as the business and people evolve. In my experience, there is not a single secret sauce for creating an environment that people appreciate. It takes continuous effort. And what we’ve accomplished here is nothing short of a work of art—something that has taken all of us, each person adding their individual brush stroke to the canvas that is FWI’s people-first culture. 

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