Never make CULTURE a task

It’s an odd suggestion to make isn’t it? That culture can be seen as a task? Surely, we all know that culture cannot be placed in the same bucket as product development? Or distribution? Or marketing?

That’s true. The majority of culture believers (yes there are still some out there that see culture as a fluffy non-essential thing that impedes progress, acting in ignorance of the fact that culture will evolve whether you embrace it or not) do see culture as something they need to develop and embed in their business, and see it as something that is core to everything they and their business does.

But what makes a great culture? What are the signs that a business has got it right?

It’s obvious! A funky office with slides and bean bags and pool tables. People having fun. Values emblazoned on the walls and on every social media post and in every video. A flexible approach to work.

Hang on, not so fast. Who’s to say what good culture is? At the end of the day, culture is unique to every organisation. Is a culture of long hours, high stress and stretching expectations bad? Not if it’s right for that organisation and that’s what the team thrive off it isn’t. I wouldn’t like that culture, but it works for a lot of firms and for a lot of people. People will call it bad if their own personal values and principles don’t align to that of the business. But that doesn’t mean the firm’s got it wrong. It may be more of a sign that the person themselves has got something wrong. They’ve chosen the wrong firm.

You see, when it comes to organisational culture, there is a spectrum. At one end, the often cold, work focused, intense and expecting firms who just want people to do their job and do it well, and don’t really engage with any of the ‘fluffy’ stuff. At the other end, those firms that take it to the extreme. Adopting the most flexible and people focused strategy they can think of. Relaxed attitudes. Loads of benefits. Beers in the fridge, cakes in the kitchen and Playstations in the chill out zone next to the Sleep Pods and Football tables.

 

But it’s not that straightforward. Culture is not a task. Installing games consoles, funky chairs and adopting highly flexible policies is all very well, but if the team hasn’t gelled and isn’t performing highly as a unit, or the leaders don’t live and breathe that culture every waking minute, people see through it. What’s the point in having a funky office if people don’t feel valued by their peers and line manager? What’s the point in having values like ‘have fun’ and ‘embrace feedback’ if people don’t do that naturally?

A major mistake UK firms often make is to look at our American friends, particularly those with a Silicon Valley zip code, and decide to take a leaf from their book. I’m not saying that all American firms make culture a task, but they do tend to be masters of disguise. For example – infinite holidays!

A well-known fact in Silicon Valley is that a number of firms embrace a policy of infinite holidays – what a great perk that is! Putting the ball in the court of their people and trusting them to manage their own time. However, in the vast majority of cases, it’s just a set of words in a policy handbook. In a recent trip there we asked a number of people from different firms whether it was working or not. And the consistent answer was no. Ultimately, annual holiday in the US is typically only 2 weeks per year. And those employees with ‘infinite holidays’ often don’t even take that because ‘culturally’ they don’t feel they can. The staring eyes as they pack up their desk ready to go away. The high work pressures and deadlines that means they can’t go anywhere without their phone and laptops. The comments and sneers from peers, friends and families of ‘I’d never dream of doing that’ or ‘so you’re going away then … tut’.

 

True, genuine culture which represents the principles and beliefs of the founders and/or leadership team, the type that unlocks business performance, ability and approach to change at all scales of business, takes a lot of concerted effort.

You may think your organisations has a great culture, but ask yourself a set of questions to satisfy this belief:

1) Do I feel I can be myself at all times? And do I enjoy what I do and who I work with?

2) Do we respect everyone and embrace their different strengths, recognising we’re all different and bring a different value to the team?

3) Do I feel like I can try new things and am I allowed to make mistakes along the way?

4) Do I fully align to the values and principles of the organisation I work for?

5) Does every interaction I have with a peer, a member of my team or my Manager/Leader or Director/Owner convey those values, and do I feel comfortable at all times?

If you were hesitant at all or answered ‘no’ to any of those questions, then there are cracks in your business’ culture. Cracks that, over time, and with growth, become bigger and bigger and can cause problems down the line. Like the dreaded departmental ‘silo’ effect. Or reduced performance and productivity because everyone is on different buses. Or loss of great people. Or unnecessary stress and anxiety. Or conflict. All things that, in their own way, can knock a company off course and act as a catalyst for reactive fire-fighting of issues that arise. A vicious cycle then following.

So, not making culture a task. What does that really mean? Well, culture is not just values. Values are a hugely important foundation for great culture, but just coming up with 5 words like most other businesses do and posting them on your walls and on your website does not mean you have nailed culture. If those 5 values are not lived and breathed every day by everyone, and especially the founders/leaders, there are cracks. And culture is not just about environment. Funky offices and flexible working practices are sometimes essential ingredients, but a fridge full of beer and a pool table does not equal great culture if people don’t get on, if they don’t respect each other, or if they’re fearful of their leaders.

Culture, like a tree, has 4 key levels that, when developed and executed in a genuinely honest and relevant way, will underpin and help sustain great business culture:

1) The ‘roots’: The ‘values’ of the organisation, the natural ‘behaviours’ of the founding team and/or Directors, and the ‘approach’ adopted by the firm. These have to be true of the Founders and/or Directors. There is no point painting yourself as a fun, aspirational and flexible organisation if your Founders/Directors are the polar opposite.

2) The ‘trunk’: Google ‘culture tree’ and you’ll get a bunch of images covered in dozens of different words. But we should keep this simple. The ‘trunk’ of the culture tree is ‘leadership’. These individuals who act as the leadership team for an organisation, be them the founders at start up phase, or the Board of Directors of an established business, hold the whole culture together. Every action they take. Every conversation they have. Every time they walk through an office. The interactions they have with people. If they don’t truly live and breathe the roots of culture, they themselves could be creating cracks. That’s why every leader needs to not only play the role of a functional lead, but also demonstrate a natural leadership style that people are inspired by across the whole business.

3) The ‘branches’: The branches of the culture tree are the things you can see from above. The different strands that hold it together. Unique to each business, they bridge the gap between intangible and tangible culture. What do we mean by that? Well, tangible culture is putting it in to practice. Your approach to reward and recognition. Your commitment to development and progression. Your management style, be it empowered or dictatorial. Your approach to recruitment and retention. Your communication style. Your brand. The way you enable and encourage people to flourish. These are the tangible tactics that convey your culture, and if compromised (e.g.; if you commit to reward great performance and then neglect to do so) will cause further cracks to appear.

4) The ‘environment’: Finally, the environment you create for the tree to grow is crucial. This is where the office space comes in! But it’s not just about that. It’s also about the tech and resources you utilise to aid collaboration and communication. And it’s about the approach to working arrangements, e.g.; remote and flexible working if applicable. If your firm is all about innovation, then the environment needs to encourage that.

 

Finally, it’s absolutely essential to recognise again the role of leaders in culture. It starts with them (the roots). It’s held together by them (the trunk and environment). It can be broken by them. If the leadership of an organisation, whether a start-up or a FTSE 100 company, casts a dark shadow over the firm (think moody erratic behaviour, failure to interact with people, reactive and negative comments that seem minor to him/her but aren’t to the receiver, actions that are contrary to the roots of culture at their firm), then the whole culture tree is at risk of dying.

Shy of being an odd suggestion to make, culture is actually so easily and frequently made to be or seen as ‘just another task’. But this mistake, often occurring in the early days/years of a new business, and sometimes not obvious at first, often does rear its ugly head further down the line and causes fundamental problems that can stretch to all corners of business activity. And just plastering those cracks doesn’t mean they’re not still there.