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insights - 17.1.2020

Company culture is more than bean bags and beer Fridays

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my journey as a marketer over the past years, it is that culture is often just an afterthought of a company’s business strategy, when—really—it should be at the heart of it. Good culture is a catalyst for productivity, a boost for reputation, and a contributor to a stable long-term retention rate, but I’ve often experienced it as nothing more than a marketing tagline on a careers page.

I’ve had the chance to work with teams in different industries, of different sizes, led by founders with different leadership styles and values. And while I’ve seen some great attempts and some great failures, all those examples have made me realize that the right combination of people, and the way they work together, is the key to a company’s success.

What does company culture mean, anyway?

I’ve heard too many self-congratulating descriptions about creative workspaces and office kegs when I ask that question, but those things aren’t what I’m talking about. Nurturing a culture takes more than complimentary granola bars and covering your walls with inspirational pop art. I’ll be honest with you, I’m a big fan of office perks. They’re nice to have, and definitely something we’ve come to expect in any growing business these days but they’re not what determines how your people roll.

One of the best ways to think about what the culture mystery is all about, is the Simon Sinek way. The TED Talker once said “Your company doesn’t have a culture. It is a culture.”

That really resonated with me. Imagine a company’s culture as a live organism that is part of your business from day one: Set in motion by the founders’ principles, over time it naturally develops an ever-changing life of its own—just like any other organism. It will be affected by every person you add and everyone you take away. It continuously evolves based on how you hire, how you fire, how you handle disagreements and the way you recognize success. Ultimately, it’s the consolidation of the values that drive all of your actions along the way.

Culture should matter—to managers and job seekers.

That concept, together with the words of Facebook’s former Culture Manager, Molly Graham (”80% of culture is your founder”), unravelled a few company culture mysteries for me:

  1. Creating a shift in culture is all about self-awareness, from a founder’s perspective. To initiate change within your team, you have to make the difference yourself, and things will transform from there. Teams have a funny way of picking up on their leaders’ habits.
  2. However, by the time you realize your culture has gone sour, the search for the reason will be like trying to figure out which part of your twelve-course dinner made you feel sick.
  3. When it comes to hiring, from an employee’s perspective, you’ll want to understand how your prospective employers tick. So, put them on the spot during your interview. Ask questions. If they’re all you’ve ever wanted in a boss, you’ve likely found your perfect match.
  4. In reverse, I believe, a company’s top hiring criteria should be cultural fit and ambition over experience. You want someone who is passionate enough to push and outgrow themselves because those are the people that’ll help your company do the same. You don’t want someone who’s too comfortable doing whatever it is they’ve been doing in their last position all over again.

How your culture is connected to your brand.

Just like there's much more to a brand than a logo, there's also much more to a company than their product or service—culture being one of those things.

When we kick-off a branding project with a client, it often happens that the people around the table feel a kind of unspoken understanding of their company's brand identity but are unsure how to bring that message across. So, I like to start the conversation with three simple questions:

  1. What is your company (and your product) all about?
  2. Why do you do what you do?
  3. What is it that you collectively believe in?

The answers to those questions get us one step closer to the client's brand. And, if we were to change the perspective of those same questions from outside-facing to inside-facing, we'd also get straight to the core of their company culture.

The connection lies in the Vision and the Values. No matter how you look at it, they should be applicable to your brand as much as to your culture. The idea is simple: When creating your brand, you develop a way to communicate who you are and what you do to the outside world. When defining your culture, you develop a way to describe who you are and how you do things to your people.

Want great company culture? Be intentional about it.

When Facebook went through growing pains, Mark Zuckerberg reached out to CEOs of companies that he admired to help him set up for a strong company culture:

One of the best pieces of advice he got was to write down a succinct list of what it meant to be 'one of us'.

Molly Graham, Former Facebook Culture Manager

The list Zuckerberg ended up with included attributes like “surrounds themselves with good people,” “high integrity,” and “likes changing and disrupting things”. Which was essentially a summary of himself as much as it reflected his favourite characteristics of his team.

To work out your own list, it might take some re-prioritizing, a determined team and a couple of tough questions but it’ll pay off. Having a shared set of values, goals, and ideals will create an internal bond—sort of like the oil for your machine—and allow your team to trust each other to do “the right thing” without having to be told how.

So, be intentional about not only who you want to be on the outside but also on the inside. Know what unites you as a team, live those values (from hiring to firing) and communicate them proudly. Bottom line: Your culture is your people, not your perks.