Building Culture: 8 things to lookout for

Barely a day goes by without the word 'culture' featuring heavily in my conversations. It’s become a sort of catch-all phrase and having a ‘great’ one is something lots of agencies can be fiercely proud and protective of - and rightly so. It's also a great get-out-jail-free card when it comes to delivering negative interview feedback; "they're good but we don't feel like they fit our culture".

But what does it really mean and what can you do to make sure yours is a positive one?

Here's what I think...

For the most part, you can substitute the word ‘culture’ for ‘brand’ - the parallels are easy to draw; a logo mark/swanky office is merely a symbol of a brand/culture. What matters is how it’s ‘lived’ - it’s that experience that becomes known as the brand/culture.

So, whether you like it or not, like every business has a ‘brand’, every business also has a ‘culture’. The pertinent question for a business owner/manager is what are you doing to shape that culture and does it have a positive or negative impact on what you're doing?

Signs of a negative culture are obvious; unhappy, underperforming people with low energy and little to no motivation. Those characteristics are clearly not conducive to delivering your best work and left to fester, they'll lead to a toxic working environment and high staff turnover.

You can get new staff, of course - albeit expensive - but until you tackle the root cause, those new recruits will become disenchanted too and you'll find yourself in a vicious cycle. Not good.

On the flip side, a positive culture demonstrates things like openness, engagement, support, empathy, genuine team spirit and (friendly) competition - the polar opposite of those negative traits ...obviously.

Engender these traits and you've got happy workers that stick around, all pull in the same direction, produce OUTSTANDING work and, as an added bonus, when it’s time to recruit (properly, this time), you've got an environment that's super attractive to people on the outside.

So now we know the difference, what are some of the things you can do to build and shape yours?

*tenuous link time* like a designer's mastery of typography, colour, layout and imagery can influence a person's perception of a brand, the best proponents of culture implement techniques, create rules and behaviours that can help shape and influence culture.

Here's how...

1. Set the tone.

Trickle down economics might have its critics but if you run the show, you have to set an example. Culture absolutely starts at the top - if you can't live by it how can you expect others to?

Example: unlike the stereotypical CEO of a multi-billion dollar firm, Mark Zuckerberg famously doesn’t have a corner office. Like everyone else, he sits at a workstation in an open plan, communal space. If you want to encourage openness and teamwork then this might be a good place to start.

In short, if there’s a value you want everyone in the organisation to subscribe to, make damn sure you do too.

2. Show gratitude.

Super simple but say thank you when someone does a good job. It’s amazing how much impact such a small thing has and it’s even more amazing how often it’s ignored.

Don't listen to the Alan Sugar’s of the world telling you that ‘getting a paycheck at the end of the month ought to be ‘thanks enough!’ In our industry, it isn’t. Especially when it comes time to ask people to go above and beyond.

“Remind your valuable people that they’re valued.”

Celebrate and praise the wins and look for milestones - be it; client feedback, awards, sales targets, time served, birthdays or whatever. Make a fuss, remind your valuable people that they’re valued and make that an ongoing task.

Remember, replacing people is tough. Replacing your best people is really tough.

3. Listen.

The culture is not yours alone, it belongs to everyone, so open your ears to what others think. Having influence is a huge part of feeling valued and a part of something bigger.

Good ideas and solutions can come from anywhere so make sure EVERYONE has a chance to contribute. You don’t always have to take on board what people suggest but if you want to build a genuine team, you at least need to hear them out.

4. Don’t fear failure.

Knowing people have your back is another cornerstone of a great working culture. If innovation, challenging the status-quo and breaking the mould are amongst your marketing mantras then you need to accept that, more often than not, you’ll need to break things and fail A LOT in order to deliver.

Game-changing solutions rarely (never) arrive at the first time of asking. Accept that and give your team permission and the space to fail without fearing the repercussions and help them pick up the pieces when it happens. It really is critical.

5. Encourage teamwork and collaboration.

You want a team that actually enjoy spending time with each other - the occasional ‘work night-out’ is great but beware of ‘forced fun’ and instead allow relationships to flourish more naturally.

Google’s 20 program sounded great in theory but in reality, the most successful creative environments are those that allow people the space to push boundaries and explore new ideas at any time. Ever sat down with the express intention of ‘being creative?’ Nah, me neither, it doesn’t really work like that, does it?

I know we’re all under pressure to deliver on time and often, nothing sharpens the mind like a deadline, but it’s worth building in some slack from time to time too.

6. Be consistent.

It's all well and good doing the right thing when the sun shines but it's even more important when the s*** hits the fan. It's about having faith in people, backing their abilities and believing in your process.

Get it right and a positive culture can be a great asset when the chips are down.

7. Don't confuse perks/big paychecks with culture.

You can provide all the artisan coffee, yoga classes, bean bags, casual Fridays and pawternity leave as you like but it'll all be for nothing if you don't get the fundamentals right. Perks and benefits are great but they’re the cherry on top - not the cake.

And finally...

8. Accept that some people will leave.

Ok, so given how I make a living, I realise this *might* be a self-serving point of view, but people leaving is ok. In fact, it can be a good thing.

Rob Gray (of Squad) wrote an excellent post on creativity that pointed me towards Brian Uzzi’s study into the success of Broadway musicals. Many of the findings apply in business - especially businesses in the creative sector.

I’m paraphrasing here, but the study found that the most successful productions tended to be those that had a core of people providing continuity, blended with newcomers that provided fresh perspectives and impetus.

Productions composed of entirely new casts were held back because the unfamiliarity inhibited people. Those composed of a team totally familiar with one another struggled to break new ground.

So, providing you have that ‘core’ of continuity, someone leaving your organisation gives you the opportunity to bring new ideas and energy to the party and that’ll help move your business forward - hopefully building an even better culture!

So there we have it, a mega complicated subject distilled into just over 1200 words!

...or maybe not.

There’s obviously plenty more to write on this subject but hopefully, this will have provided food for thought. Leave a comment, drop me a line or give me a call if you fancy digging a bit deeper. :)

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