This is a transcript of Episode 1 – creating and nurturing your culture. You can also listen to episode 1.
For me, culture is really how it feels.
We do things like hire for cultural fit and we say people have got to fit with the culture and a lot of people talk about the culture of our place without really articulating what it is.
An important thing is to make it not feel contrived. Which, you’ve almost certainly worked at places where you have this contrived culture and that’s a huge off putter.
Welcome to Feel – a podcast about leadership and building the next generation of engaging and empathetic organisations. My name’s Andy Kelk and in this series, I’ll be talking to people who have built and run successful teams to find out what’s important to them and what they do day to day.
In this episode, the focus is on culture – what is it? how do you build it? how do you mould it? and how do you preserve it?
There’s a quotation which is commonly attributed to Peter Drucker; although there’s some debate about its origin; it says “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – meaning that having a strong and productive culture is more important for success than formulating a killer strategy.
But what’s often missing from any discussion of company culture is a definition. As is traditional on these occasions, we’ll turn to the dictionary. So, in an anthropological sense, culture is defined as “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.”
How about the practitioners that I spoke to? Kerri Rusnak, formerly of the REA Group in Melbourne:
For me, culture is really how it feels. What does it take to create culture? For me, I think, when people explain culture or they talk about their culture, they use emotional words more often than not. So to me, it’s just basically, how does that organisation feel. And I think the more times that you hear a certain word used to describe that culture by people that are in the organisation, that’s probably closer to what the true culture is.
So if culture is about what people do, the ways they act and the emotions they feel, those seem like pretty immutable things that we all possess. So, is it right to try and change an organisation’s culture? Here’s Kerri again:
I think I’ve been in a role where cultural change is needed to or is a result of pursuing a different objective for an organisation. But the objective was never change the culture. And I think that’s a much more natural way of doing things. As a leader you might be focusing on why are we changing it or perhaps even what has to change. There’s certain bottom-line fundamentals for an organisation. If it doesn’t make money you’re not going to have this organisation, regardless of how cool it is. That’s great that we’re cool but if we can’t be cool and have money then being cool’s going to have happen in the pub down the street on Friday nights when you guys finish your day jobs.
So I think, when you’re in a leadership position or even if you’re just part of your peer group, focusing on the why or the what in terms of why are we changing or what has to change. Focus on that and then let the culture emerge from that.
One person who’s been through a massive cultural transition both as a team member and as a leader is also from the REA Group, Mike Breeze. What does he think is the key?
It’s the people that are going to make it work. We’re already well on our way with our agile transformation and I think the big thing that I really loved, right from the very first day of when we started doing the agile transformation here is it put people and relationships first really. Or right at the forefront of building software. So we went very quickly from a bunch of developers sitting there with their enormous high-fidelity headphones, working in complete silence all day; and I was one of them, I had my beautiful headphones and my headphone amplifier at my desk; and no-one talking to anyone to suddenly people talking to each other and pairing and communicating all day. So we quickly recognised and we saw the value in putting people first.
Putting people first is really the heart of what we’re talking about today. It’s common in organisations to focus on what author Rich Karlgaard calls the hard edge – strategy, execution, numbers, quantifiable aspects of business. What’s not so common is to zero in on the softer qualities that are as important to achieving success. Alex Stokes has worked in many different organisations including some of Australia’s largest corporate entities. She’s seen how different organisational styles can lead to drastically different results.
It’s really fascinating and I think people’s performance in a role is a product of so many factors. And it’s very contextual about the big one – the organisation that you’re working in. Because I’ve seen people that have zoomed in one organisation crash and burn in others. And that’s kind of fascinating in itself.
One of the key things, then, is making sure that organisations are hiring the right people – both to create the right culture and to make sure that the people they hire don’t crash and burn.
Steve Hardisty is a senior engineering manager at the online marketplace Etsy in New York; he’s spent a lot of time thinking about how to get the right people through the door.
When we talk about instilling culture and we talk about the hiring process, we do have certain things we look for when we hire. We look for people who are interested in what we do. Is there an interest alignment in Etsy? Do they care about our product? Do they care about our mission? More often than not, they do. Very rarely do we have people come in who have just read the about page. We take care of that at the screening process as well.
And then, when we interview, we try and get a good mix of people who are from the team in which they’re going to work and we have almost like an interview panel; people who ask the same questions every single time so they get a very good sense of a good answer to a certain question.
And Etsy are just one of a growing number of companies who are realising the importance of hiring people as much for their behavioural traits and their fit with the company’s culture as for the functional skills that they bring to the table. Alex Stokes recently had the experience of hiring people for a new department which was trying to influence the company’s culture.
My colleague and I thought we’d made some headway into trying to hire for culture first and there were some interesting things and we got feedback from recruiters and things like that and we constantly inspected and adapted our own hiring process so that was the way we worked.
One of the things that was a real lightbulb moment for both of us, I think, we said “it’s culture first, skills second.” So we want great people and skills are less important but we were making everyone come to a skills interview first. And the recruiter said “well, come on, you say culture first, skills second, why don’t you do your cultural interview or your behavioural interview first?” And I was like “Oh, yeah, that’s really smart”. Then we won’t have this question of “we think their skills are good but will they pass the people test?”
Passing the people test is also something that Kerri Rusnak makes sure her new hires can do:
I think it comes down to, and I’ve always said this to my teams, I would always take a well-balanced, positive, optimistic, highly performing, perhaps even quirky person into my team than someone who’s really qualified but perhaps the personality isn’t there. The personality is the leader; a good person will be ambitious, a good person will want to learn, a good person will be adaptable, a good person will be open to change and transparent.
So those are the really important things because, I think, anybody can learn a skill whatever that skill is. With some limitations; you might have a natural performance or a natural talent in something but in most modern workplaces, the jobs that we do, you can be trained in. So to maintain culture and culture leads the organisation then bring in really good people, focus on that as your prime objective and then say, wherever the gap is, if we’ve got the right person and they’ve got the right attitude, they’ll learn it and we’re going to encourage them on that journey.
So, if cultural fit is so important to success, what are the things you should be asking candidates to make sure that they’re right for you? A lot will depend on your team and what they think and what your existing culture is like. Alex Stokes had a handy exercise to get candidates to open up and talk about themselves.
We used to ask people about their motivations and we had this little tool, it’s from Jurgen Appelo, I think it was called Moving Motivators and it had little symbols for all different intrinsic motivation factors and we asked people just to pick whatever three, the top three symbols that they felt spoke to them and explain what they were.
They were all sorts of things; I think one was trust, one was teamwork, one was courage and one was mastery. It wasn’t that there was a right answer or a particular profile that we were looking for. We were just really interested in knowing the people well. We just wanted something we could talk to to say “why did you choose that? Why is teamwork or working as part of a team important to you? Why is collaboration important to you? Why is mastery so important to you?” Just to get a better sense of who the person was.
Doing all of this takes time of course, but all of our interviewees felt that taking time in hiring the right people was incredibly important and worth spending that time on. Kerri Rusnak has some words of warning about hiring too fast.
There’s a really important analogy I use when I talk about bringing people onto a culture or into an organisation. In rowing, the easiest way to train a rower to a high level of competency very quickly is not to keep them in the learn-to-row crew where you have 8 learn-to-row students in the same boat. It’s much better if you bring one or two people into an already highly-performing crew. Because what happens is, when everybody’s new, everyone’s feeding off each other and they’re actually trying to correct each others’ mistakes, and they think that what they’re doing was perhaps just them and it was wrong when in fact what they were doing was right but it’s different from everybody else. You have a really hard time trying to train up 8 new rowers when you have them all in the same crew.
Same thing with culture. If you think of it as the boat is your organisation and the culture is a highly running, well-balanced boat. It’s much better to bring in one or two new people at a time, drip feed new people into and organisation. If you already have a very highly-functioning, very positive, energetic culture.
Now, you have to respect too that even one or two new people is going to shift a culture, they might bring in a new seed of something else that becomes something great; perfect, that’s actually what we want, I’m not beholden to protecting it; but what will happen is if you introduce too many people at the same time, and you see this if you’re going through a massive transformation, if you introduce too many people at the same time then I think what you start to see is a whole culture shakes and shifts and then nobody can really put a stake in the ground because there’s so many stakes being put in the ground and all the ropes are tied to each other that things start to snap and your culture dissolves. I’m very happy and I think it’s right that culture evolves and changes but you don’t want your culture to break. And the fastest way to break it is bring in too many new people.
And that’s not the only danger to watch out for. A number of our interviewees also worried about cultures being too homogenous. Alex Stokes:
I wonder, sometimes, because of that hiring thing because I think there’s a lot of the bias that you have when you hire people just like yourself that we have to watch out for that we’re not just hiring for everyone’s opinion is the same, that we’re trying to get some kind of diversity in the teams that we hire for because I think a lot of us would agree, a lot of our contemporaries would agree that diversity of people creates better outcomes.
The important thing to recognise about diversity is that you can end up with more than just one culture. Kerri Rusnak:
I think organisations probably focus too much on having a culture and trying to define the culture and then trying to hold onto that culture as though, if that culture changes, then something would be lost. Whereas I actually think it’s much more natural, organic, evolutionary, modern to say “we have many cultures here and this is an organisation capable of hosting multiple cultures and you can find your own niche in that culture.” I think, by that, you create more adaptable culture and the more adaptable it is, I think the more likely you are to retain good people.
How do you retain good people? And reinforce the elements of the culture that you want to preserve? Alex Stokes:
You just keep talking to people and understanding what they think is valuable about it. Is it the team celebrations? Is it the amount that we invest in people? Is it physical environments? Is it how many holidays we get? Is it our working hours? All of those cultural norms. Understand what’s important about it and try and preserve it. But it is tricky because people move on and it’s the banana monkey thing. We know we’re doing this, why were we doing this originally? How do you preserve that?
“Banana monkey thing”, in case you’re completely confused is a commonly cited behavioural experiment where monkeys in a cage were discouraged from climbing stairs to reach a banana by having cold water sprayed on them. Once the monkeys had learned that going after the banana would result in punishment, any monkey attempting to do so was assaulted by the rest of the group.
The amazing thing that happened was that monkeys were steadily replaced with new cage mates who were also assimilated into the group behaviours and that, even once all the original monkeys had left the cage, the monkeys would continue to assault any of their number going for the banana.
But, surely, we’re more than just monkeys in cages. At least I hope we are. Can we change human behaviour that easily? Steve Hardisty:
That’s pretty difficult. That’s harder than to bend to them. But certainly where it becomes a problem. One of the things we pride ourselves on is giving people a lot of latitude to do their job and that often means do it in the way they choose to.
And sometimes that works well, sometimes it doesn’t and we’ve definitely had situations where someone’s personality doesn’t mesh with the fact that they are responsible for dealing with people who use their software or dealing with people with different sets of expertise, for example designers or product managers. And a lot of that depends on the place they’ve come from before and the attitude towards designers and product managers or clients that they had in their previous job.
People are hard to change, they get gradually shaped by the organisations they’ve worked in before and they don’t just magically adapt to a new culture. How then do we promote that diversity that’s so important? Alex Stokes:
I’d probably say that I say “yes” to more people and take more risks with hiring because I’ve had some people that’ve been turnarounds. I think when you have a turnaround in your career at some point it just gives you this huge amount of faith. As an old colleague of mine use to say, “I just need to find which buttons to push. I need to find their buttons and once I find their buttons then this one’s going to be a star.”
I know some people would just go “nah, I’m just going to come through with a big broom, I’m going to sweep everyone out, hire a fresh set of people just like me.” I would probably spend more time working on the people because, eventually, if you use that model then you’ll run out of people.
Kerri Rusnak reminds us that hiring people doesn’t stop at the point you make an offer.
A lot of organisations are very poor at that transition of bringing new people in and providing them with the security of giving them some space to adapt. I think we assume that because, from our perspective, we come in every day and we’re comfortable, that other people will also be comfortable and operate fine but that’s not the case. There’s a duck on water. A lot of people are swimming madly to keep up day to day.
I think if we were more mindful of that in the beginning, when we bring them in making sure that the onboarding is not just about the process and the procedures of the organisation and “here’s the bathroom and coffee’s free and would you like to come for lunch?” but actually really approaching it from more of a humanistic perspective and working with them and being very positive with them in the beginning. Because I’d be very surprised if people sneak through the interview process. I don’t think it’s in most people’s interests to do so. Nobody really wants to come in and overpromise and under-deliver.
And that’s really what all of this comes down to. Being humanistic, giving people space, allowing people to adapt and spending the time with them so they don’t overpromise and under-deliver.
Next time on Feel; developing talent – how do smart leaders identify and grow people in their organisations?
And if you have a story to tell about leadership and organisations, I’m looking for more people to talk to for upcoming episodes. Get in touch on twitter – @feelpodcast, or contact me via the website – FeelPodcast.org
I’m Andy Kelk, this has been Feel. A big thank you to Alex Stokes, Kerri Rusnak, Mike Breeze and Steve Hardisty. The show’s music is by audionautix.com and our website is FeelPodcast.org