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Culture-add: just a fad?

Culture
Helen Gilroy-Powell

Helen Gilroy-Powell

11th June 2019

At our first Occupation: People event, we gathered People and Culture experts to speak on the topic, “Culture add: Just a fad?” and they did not disappoint. Our speakers moved the conversation on culture forward, examining the buzzwords and going beyond the hype to demonstrate how forward-thinking companies are building positive work cultures for now and the future. Read on for highlights from the individual talks and keep an eye out for a future blog from the panel: evolving culture.

Luke Shipley at Occupation: People

Why should companies care about culture?

Work culture is how the people that make up your company think, speak, act and react. It is built from the combinations of behaviours, values, beliefs and ideologies held within your company. According to Geraldine Butler-Wright, a company culture is living, breathing and constantly evolving. A clearly defined culture benefits a company by uniting their people behind common values, qualities and attitudes.

Luke Shipley highlighted Netflix’s now-famous culture deck as an example of a successful, well-defined company culture. When it was released, it transformed the way in which companies think about culture through its upfront approach and actionable nature. One measure of the success of Netflix’s culture was how they made the decision to fire Kevin Spacey from their hit series House of Cards. Once the sexual abuse accusations against him came to light, one of Netflix’s content leaders, Cindy Holland, was able to make this decision within 20 minutes. The years spent building and developing their culture paid off through empowering their employees to make the right decisions, fast.

Positive culture puts people at the centre.

Kirstin Furber hit the nail on the head in her talk, on the five characteristics of a human culture, which she identified as: purpose, authenticity, telling your story, diversity and the workplace. Her talk was a strong reminder that companies and their cultures are built by and for humans so humans should be put front and centre when designing cultures.

Kirstin Furber at Occupation: People

Both Geraldine and Kirstin discussed how to create company cultures where people love what they do. Cultures where they feel inspired and excited when they think about their work, not wanting to put on their “armour”, as Kirstin described. Geraldine added that when people love what they do, it can attract, grow and retain brilliant minds. So how can companies create this kind of culture?

Bertie Tonks said it’s a two-way process, “Does cultural transformation come from leadership? Momentarily, yes—the role of a leader is to set direction, set the parameters and the framework and then move out of the way because if you give good people the space to do great things, it will happen [...] most people need to be supported, encouraged and coached but not directly managed”. When leaders allow their team to take ownership of a project or a transition, they will experience a different, potentially more powerful kind of motivation and effort.

At Yoyo Wallet, Geraldine told us how they have programmes where people can pay forward their skills and knowledge by running sessions on everything from coding to literal yo-yo tricks. This not only provides opportunities to learn but it forges connections across the company and makes employees feel valued for the expertise they have.

Enacting change and managing resistance.

As your company grows and develops, you may encounter challenges such as how to maintain your culture as you scale and how to enact cultural change.

Bertie’s approach is to make small, fast changes incrementally which can make a real difference to overall cultural transformation, “the days of huge culture change programs are over. I’ve worked in organisations where we’ve driven that activity and generally speaking, it doesn’t work”. When he started his current role in his organisation Bertie ripped up the company’s structure, spending time interviewing around 50 of his staff. He then restructured the company based on his team’s strengths and their passions. Naturally, this didn’t happen without a certain level of pushback—and people practitioners need to anticipate this when enacting changes—but his success is clear as he’s only lost one person in the two years since this restructuring.

Bertie Tonks at Occupation: People

One way of managing resistance to change is for you to be authentic and clear about your purpose. Kirstin explains “you only trust people you know are authentic, who can be vulnerable, who really are themselves”. Leaders who communicate their “why”, and show authenticity and vulnerability can better generate trust and inspire teams to follow their direction.

Technology for cultural transformation.

Can technology facilitate company cultures? Bertie advocated the introduction of software such as Betterworks to add transparency to your processes and communication. This tech solution enables your teams to give feedback, to track and share objectives and to see how these are linked to the overall objectives of the business.

His company has also implemented a chatbot to automate location-specific responses to requests for information such as “how do I book my holidays” or “how do I access the HR system”. In the UK alone, they get around 500-600 of these kinds of requests each month, so the chatbot saves the admin team time, allowing them to focus on other tasks. They have also moved from predominantly communicating by email to Facebook workplace, making communication more social, transparent and inclusive, demolishing “communication silos”.

In choosing your communication tools, Kirstin advised that as everyone has their individual preferences for how to communicate, the choice of channel is crucial to ensure you’re communicating in the best way to engage with your individual team members whether that be online, in one-to-one meetings or in town halls.

Redefining the “corporate”

At Collinson, Bertie says they denounce the word “corporate” as they don’t want too much structure or process to drown out creativity and innovation. However, when the company grew to over 2000 employees, they realised that a certain level of structure and process needed to be in place in order for the organisation to perform.

As your company’s journey progresses, your cultural needs may change, including your identity and self-concept. Building on ideas from Blitzscaling, Geraldine discussed how Yoyo Wallet has scaled from a family to a tribe, “we’re no longer a family, as families can sometimes be dysfunctional. We need to be a team, and with a team you can swap players in and out; it’s a collective effort and you’ve got to play nicely to get on and to make our business a success”.

Each member of her company is a co-founder of their culture which means they all hold each other accountable and speak up so they can maintain their culture and community as they grow. It is for this reason that they have the freedom and the responsibility to do the best work of their lives.

Geraldine Butler-Wright at Occupation People

As Geraldine summarised, “our culture provides certainty when faced with uncertainty”. A strong culture, co-created with a clear purpose and direction empowers your staff make better decisions in a shorter amount of time.

Kirstin concluded her talk by challenging us all to think about the 5 characteristics of a human culture and apply them to our company. When we think about our staff as individual humans rather than resources, we can build company cultures where teams can thrive.


Special thanks to our speakers: Kirstin Furber, former Chief People Officer; Geraldine Butler-Wright, VP of People & Culture at Yoyo Wallet; Bertie Tonks Global Director of People & Culture at Collinson; and Zinc’s co-founder Luke Shipley. We also thank our panellists ZeShaan Shamsi, Director of Talent at Onfido; Katrina Zlateva-Bowles Director of People and Talent at Opensignal and Kirstin Furber for their thoughtful discussion.

Keep an eye on our blog for highlights from our panel on evolving culture.


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