During my career, I’ve experienced the great, the average, and the ugly of company cultures—either through lived experience or by helping startups and multinationals turn their cultures around.
They all taught me one thing: culture is both critical to growth and highly susceptible to growth.
Think of culture as a cycle: adapt it to fit your company and it will unlock growth through better team performance and retention but, once you grow, you need to adapt it to stop it slipping through your fingers.
Here I draw on my experience to help you adapt your culture and unlock growth as a result. I’ll share practical suggestions on how to shape, articulate, and maintain culture at key touchpoints with both new and existing hires.
Culture-Your Special Sauce
“Create the kind of workplace and company culture that will attract great talent. If you hire brilliant people, they will make work feel more like play” – Richard Branson
The Cambridge Dictionary defines culture as the customs and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time. It’s how all that planning, strategizing, and dreaming actually gets put into action.
Practically speaking, culture impacts recruitment, retention, and performance, yet its power is often vastly underestimated by employers.
46% of job seekers identify company culture as a deciding factor in the application process and a further 15% have declined a job due to the company’s culture.
You can think of it as your special sauce that’s impossible to replicate.
Culture Is Also Like Clay
The analogies continue.
Perhaps your company has stumbled upon a great culture. This happens to a lot of startups who have made a few brilliant hires: business is progressing well, everyone happily shares two pizzas, and goes wakeboarding on away days.
As these startups grow, people begin to look back on “the good old days when we were smaller” and lament that the culture has been lost. Ornaments and relics around the office remind people of the ‘good times’.
Like clay, culture is fragile when left high-and-dry and malleable when you work with it. This means culture requires careful protection to preserve but it can also be transformed quicker than you think.
And yes, the CEO’s choice of footwear might have something to do with it.
In 2016, a tech-driven mobility company was spun out from a struggling automotive company.
With no legacy to rely on, the idea was to create a tech-company culture and, with it, a promising fresh start.
But there was a catch: no tech CEO was brought in, the CEO was the same CEO who had addressed the traditional company for many years. For the culture to change, he had to change too.
The day came to launch the new brand and direction: Aptiv, a global technology company enabling the future of mobility.
For the first time in his career, the CEO replaced his business suit and shoes with casual sneakers, jeans, and a jumper. This simple shift signaled a new era with new priorities in a way that was tangible and visible to the audience.
While creating the culture you want is far more than just wearing different shoes, this story shows that it’s little things that add up to make a big difference when it comes to culture.
How To Ensure Your Culture Is Maintained As You Scale
Enshrine your values: write a holy book
How can you help your team build a culture that moves them forward, rather than reflect with nostalgia on the great culture they had in the past?
Answer: Write it down.
Many small companies stumble on a great culture by accident.
Like a precious ornament, they leave it proudly on the mantlepiece, convinced that the best way to protect it is to do nothing.
Of course, as the great culture unlocks growth, circumstances change and failure to define the culture in the first place means no one knows where to start when it comes to adapting it.
If you’ve got good stuff going on but no one has defined it, write it down.
It starts with your organizational values: pick characteristics that can be easily demonstrated through behaviors.
“We are innovative” is hard for people to get their heads around. How do I behave innovatively?
Instead, you might focus on enabling experimentation or creating impact.
Once you’ve chosen your values, consider the consequences. I was once sent in to reposition a large MNC as innovation-centric and forward-looking.
Staring me down as I sat in the boardroom was their internal credo, which included the line “We never fail”. The CEO told me the company lives and breathes every word. A workplace that forbids failure is hardly a safe space for innovators to experiment!
Regardless, once you’re sure your values are right for you, don’t just hang them on the wall.
Write down exactly what they mean and the behaviors they encourage in a culture book.
This is your organization’s holy book.
Every time you need clarity on a decision, the culture book will guide you to act in accordance with your values.
Champion it from the rooftops—everyone needs to read this book at least once.
If you need some inspiration, the mother of all culture books is undoubtedly Patagonia’s.
Founder Yvon Chouinard authored Let My People Go Surfing in 2005 for his employees. Since then it has been translated into 10 languages and is used in schools and as a case study at Harvard University.
The book focuses on the fundamentals that make Patagonia unique: “None of us were certain it was going to be successful, but we did know that we were not interested in doing business as usual”.
This statement alone is a great guide for future decision-making within the organization. They know, for example, that going public is “business as usual” for successful companies but that remaining privately owned is key to the success of their environmental work.
Make it your own
As your company scales, people will start talking about you behind your back. What do you want people to say about your company when you’re not in the room?
There’s a fantastic quote from Maya Angelou: “People don’t remember what you say, they remember how you make them feel” and it serves as a reminder that culture’s influence is greater than we think and can even affect tangibles like track record.
How do you want people to feel about you? How do you want your team to feel at work and what behaviors do you need to encourage in order to create that feeling?
One of the UK’s leading digital banks, Monzo, chose “open”, “inclusive” and “collaborative” as their 3 key values.
They recognize that the biggest barrier to living these values as a bank is language, which can often be cold, technical, and full of intimidating terminology.
You can read their full tone of voice guide online, dedicated to helping the organization to live these values and make life easier for their customers.
The language they use in their communications (both internal and external) brings their values to life in a way that leaves people feeling included and clued up, never confused nor overwhelmed.
And that’s the unifying power of language.
There’s a reason that your first day in an organization with an established culture feels like you’re battling through acronyms and “jargon”.
The thing about jargon is that it creates an “in-crew” and an “out-crew”, without the in-crew even realizing it.
A shared language creates a shortcut to understanding. What “in-words” are your team using that are unique to your culture and represent your values?
My current organization, Rainmaking APAC, stumbled across one of these “in-words” entirely by accident.
We’d just won a project from an existing client and our Chief Commercial Officer had hashtagged #greatdeliverypowersourgrowth at the end of his celebratory announcement on our Slack channel. A team member commented: “what’s #sourgrowth🍋?” and the rest is history.
Lemon t-shirts, lemon posters in the office, and the constantly reinforced message that, as a culture, we pride ourselves on delivering great work because it’s the best way to unlock more great work.
Reinforce desired behaviours
According to Seth Godin, whenever each of us makes a choice or acts a certain way we are acutely aware of the status quo: “People like us do things like this”.
He states “We can’t change the culture, but each of us has the opportunity to change a culture, our little pocket of the world.”
In your company, your little pocket of the world, how can you lead by example? From how we dress to how we act to what we talk about in the office, show your team what “people like us” do best, and others will follow.
By wearing a relaxed dress code, but publicly celebrating great work and giving granular individual feedback to keep outputs on the right track, you’re showing your team that people like us don’t sweat the small stuff but we’re sticklers for high-quality output.
You can also tie employee recognition to desired behaviors, for example ensuring that public shoutouts are always tied to one of your values/desired behaviors.
Let candidates sneak a peek into your culture
From a recruitment perspective, don’t leave external perceptions of the culture to shape themselves.
Instead, be proactive and create them yourself: leave your culture book lying around—in job ads, on your website, on your socials—for candidates to find when they research your company.
On the flip side, do your own research. Did your values shine through through the process recruitment process?
Live up to your values in your interviews. If one of your values is “transparency” then be open and honest with candidates about what the role really entails and the challenges they’ll likely face.
Onboard in a way that’s right for you
It’s day one. What’s someone’s first introduction to your culture? If you do recruitment right, they will have a clear idea of your values, they’ll have had a taste and they will be excited to experience your culture for real.
If one of your values is “kindness”, what does that mean for their first interactions with team members? What about lunch on the first day?
Kindness is indeed one of Rainmaking APAC’s current values, and we ensure there’s a warm and welcoming bunch of people ready to go for lunch with the new individual on day one.
We also assign a buddy to ensure the person has a go-to for simple questions. This isn’t something we’ve always done; it’s a structure we’ve implemented as we scale in a way that aligns with our values. The culture only gets stronger as a result.
What’s at stake here? The individual has been promised a great culture to work in. When they arrive, things are very different.
They’re faced with three choices: seek to change the culture (almost impossible, as a newbie), accept the status quo, or leave.
Whilst the latter may seem like the worst option, accepting the status quo leaves longer-lasting damage: the larger you get and the more people accept a culture that’s nothing like what they were promised, the more deeply entrenched that culture becomes.
And that leads us to our last area of focus: how to hit the brakes when the culture train has gone off the rails. The crux of the matter? Performance management.
Align culture and performance management
Let’s be clear, the culture book should be part of performance management at all times, for good or for bad.
It’s the mirror you hold up to individuals during their performance reviews to say: “Thank you, we all see you’re building our culture for the better” or “We all see your behavior is not aligned with our culture, and it’s creating problems as a result”.
This should have a real-world impact on the outcome of the individual’s review, their performance, and the financial rewards they take home. Without this accountability, as you scale, a great culture disappears.
If you decide to link culture to performance management, clear expectations must be set upfront.
When people join, it must be explained what percentage of their bonus depends on upholding the culture’s values. During progress reviews, feedback must be given not only on performance but on internal cultural fit too.
When bonus time comes, the individual will know where they have excelled and where they have fallen short, with cultural alignment as a key metric.
When you’re changing the culture, aligning incentives with a new organizational culture is tougher still: Robert Nardelli became CEO of Home Depot in 2000 and sought to change a highly autonomous culture where decisions were largely made on “gut feel” to a more centralized, data-driven culture.
Unsurprisingly, he lost many high-level employees in the first year but managed turned the business around successfully. Building the right culture takes sacrifice on both sides.
Earlier we mentioned that culture is fragile. We all know the saying “One bad apple spoils the barrel” and this is an apt metaphor for the death of many a strong culture.
Failure to exit one person whose values are misaligned will lead to the creation of sub-cultures or factions that seek to destroy the culture others have worked so hard to build.
Harvard Business Review states that mutiny is possible once “values have been flouted” and this should be the first signal to organizational leaders that worse is coming. When something’s not right, learn when to work on it and when to let go.
7 Steps To A Stronger Culture
Use this 7-step checklist below to identify where you’re at in your culture journey and where to go next in order to strengthen the culture from its roots and ensure it blossoms.
- Choose values that align with the behaviors you want to see in your organization
- Write down those values and associated behaviors in a culture book
- Share that culture book with the world (on social media, job ads, internal channels)
- Adapt each of your company processes to reflect your values, especially recruitment, onboarding, and performance management
- Identify culture champions who are doing everything in their power to bring the desired culture to life—reward them and encourage them, whilst holding accountable anyone who is undermining the culture
- Be quick to make decisions when one bad apple is undermining your culture—use the culture book as a standard to hold them accountable
- Oh, and think carefully about your CEO’s choice of footwear.