Designing culture

by Madeleine Baud

14 November 2017

How it's done and, more importantly, why.

Culture Inc.

"Good company culture" is one of those concepts that would have seemed alien a few decades ago. Our parents and grandparents probably counted themselves lucky to have a steady job that paid the bills. To suggest that we should also enjoy our work would have seemed idealistic at best, just plain indulgent and entitled at worst.

Work hard for 10-20 years, they once said, and you might be rewarded with promotions and pay rises.

That's not just conjecture: my grandfather worked for one company for his entire life. From an entry-level clerk's position straight out of high school to a senior role and, ultimately, retirement.

One company. 

These days, the balance of power has shifted. The endless talk of resumés, interview skills and how to climb the corporate ladder has slowed of late, replaced with discussions of how to attract good talent. The hunter has become the hunted.

Employers still expect a lot from employees: more education, longer hours, better skills. But now employees expect some things in return. It's not just about competitive pay, perks and flexible working conditions, it's also a little thing called good company culture. Liquorice prides itself on its culture and we'll talk about that in a minute. First, let's cover the basics.

What constitutes good culture?

Every workplace is different, as is every employee. Some people value social interaction and see after-work drinks as a hallmark of good culture. Others prefer the company of cats and therefore feel that flexibility is where it's at. There are a few things that everyone wants, though, and perhaps none so much as this: an absence of fear. 

It may seem obvious, but there is no remuneration generous enough to make up for a workplace where people are dictated by fear (or insecurity, mistrust, resentment...).

Simon Sinek told a story about an airport confrontation in his TED talk Why good leaders make you feel safe, saying "I watched the gate agent treat this man like he had broken the law... for attempting to board one group too soon. I said, 'Why do you have to treat us like cattle?' And she said, 'Sir, if I don't follow the rules, I could get in trouble or lose my job'. All she was telling me is that she doesn't feel safe. All she was telling me is that she doesn't trust her leaders."

As FastCo. pointed out, "Employees in an organization with a great culture can walk into the boss’s office with a concern and walk out knowing they were heard."

People want a workplace that values their contribution, listens to their concerns and acts in the best interests of its people. Perks don't hurt, either.

The tech industry led the way with casual clothes, ping pong tables and free food, but even the biggest, most conservative companies are starting to follow suit. LinkedIn named PwC Australia's Top Company to work for after they made some radical changes in the name of culture. Gone is the oppressive dress code, the strict 9-5 work day and the grey cubicles. Fuelled by free coffee, PwC employees are free to wear what they want, work where they want (even if that means staying home), and are never expected to be in the office on their birthday.

The right fit

A company is an ecosystem. Introduce the wrong kind of person and you kill the culture that everyone else has worked so hard to create. So how do you find the right people? And how do you keep them?

It's about looking past skills and experience and seeing potential.

Put aside the resumé and ask yourself, "What potential does this person have to contribute to our ecosystem?"

More often than not, the right fit is less about skills and more about personality. People want to work with like-minded folk. They want to work with people who share the same values. Don't equate hiring for personality with hiring the same person over and over again, though. You don't want clones, you want an ensemble.

You don't want a choir, you want a band.

The band

If you believe Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, there are 16 personality types, each with a unique set of personality traits, strengths and weaknesses. For example, take the INFP, or a "Mediator" as it's nicknamed.

Mediators are a creative bunch, energetic and fiercely independent. They keep the peace and they work their butts offNice, right? The downside is, they're bad with numbers, they don't like rules and they hate dishing out criticism. Not exactly management material. For every INFP, you need an ESTJ, or "Executive". Executives are natural-born leaders. They're organised, direct and relentless. They're also stubborn and literal but, hey, sometimes you need that.

Even if you don't subscribe to the Myers-Briggs brand of pop psychology, the principle is still sound. It's about assembling a team whose skills complement one another.

Take a look around you. Do you have a team full of Johns and Pauls? Maybe it's time to look at getting yourself a George or a Ringo.

A Liquorice kind of person

What about here at Liquorice? How do we go about creating a positive culture? Managing Director, Scott Bonanno says, "For me, good company culture creates an environment that allows people to do their best work, gives employees opportunity to grow and allows for some work/life balance. 

I don't think building a culture like this is something you can do overnight. You need to pay close attention to how your business and your employees change over time and put processes and policies in place that allow you to support the work environment as you grow. For us, things like flexible working hours and part-time contracts are something we brought in a few years ago which have allowed us to hire and retain great people. 

There are a couple of big ideas that I think are really important, regardless of the type of business you're in. These are things like psychological safety (essentially creating an environment where people can safely say what they think) and having good internal support networks so that more junior staff are able to seek advice and learn from seniors."

Emotional intelligence and culture

The accessibility of higher education has produced a generation for which a bachelor's degree is less and less a privilege and more a rite of passage. Everyone's educated, everyone's a "motivated self-starter", and in the future, it looks like everyone will know how to code. But can you deliver criticism tactfully? How good are you at dealing with conflict?

Despite (or maybe because of) the ever-increasing role of technology in our lives, it's emotional intelligence that is becoming the most important skill for potential employees, regardless of role and seniority. No matter how talented or experienced or intelligent you are, no-one wants to sit next to you if you're a jerk. Simple as that.

Emotional intelligence is a key ingredient of good company culture and the central principle in the rising field of "employee experience", which is code for "How can we retain good people?". Multiple publications have touched on employee experience, reporting on its ascension in corporate environments as well as its importance in agile methodologies. This issue is bigger than resumés and interviews, though. 

"This is not just a gap in the corporate market, it’s a gap in the world. What does not get taught now is the things that actually matter in the modern day. All we do is interact around human behaviour, yet all we teach is account management skills or creative skills." - Fergus Watts, founder and executive chairman of creative agency Bastion Collective, in an interview with Mumbrella.

So, how do you go about filling that gap? Firstly, it's important to acknowledge that there are no quick fixes. Good culture can't be bought with a team-building retreat or a free lunch. It's a long, slow process.

As Liquorice Account Director, Anna Gowers, says, "Culture is created one experience at a time. Having a shared purpose of great experiences for our clients, our audiences and our teams really underpins the culture here at Liquorice. We all genuinely care about our work and each other. I like to think we treat our work and our people with respect and kindness, and have some fun along the way. Work hard, play nice."