Part 2: Building a positive culture

By Vijhai Utheyan

Google, Facebook, and Amazon. If you think about these companies, their culture is often one of the things you first picture. Identifying and building a strong culture has allowed them to increase efficiency, improve morale, and decrease turnover, and all this has ultimately led to greater profitability. Many leaders think culture is an abstract concept, an intangible aspect of the business that cannot be controlled. However, all these companies not only have a strong culture they intentionally created but also continue to foster.

I have become interested in the importance of culture after working in a range of organisations, including small businesses, NGO and government sectors through to large corporations. I have found that the culture really impacts how you feel about your work and the effort you put into it.

There are many strategies I have learnt about through these experiences and from reading broadly in the area that can allow an organisation to have shape their culture. In Part 2 of this three-part series I share about how some companies have dealt with the culture hurdle.

How do you create culture?

For many companies creating a culture is about designing a nice environment. That’s why so many companies are now building bright trendy spaces.

While the physical environment can definitely play an important part in fostering relationships between colleagues and ensuring comfort within the workplace, it is by no means the central element of culture. A good culture goes far beyond this. Culture provides the blueprint for the way your employees interact with each other, with customers, clients and even with you. It influences every interaction, every staff meeting, and even their social gatherings. So, it is important to get it right.

Many successful companies and Silicon Valley tech giants have fostered and placed a strong emphasis on their culture and have invested in developing it. Anyone can see how culture has played a significant role in their continued success and their ability to attract the leading minds in the field. From Spotify, Valve, Hootsuite, Asana, Etsy, Dell, LinkedIn, and Facebook to the one that started it all, Netflix. There is no questioning the success of these companies. But their culture goes beyond the free unlimited food cooked by gourmet chefs at Facebook or Netflix’s unlimited vacation leave and time off that is never tracked. These companies have one major tool in common that they have used to shape every decision and guide every employee working with them.

A guide for getting it right

Canva is an example of how culture can emerge and be captured over time. The company is based on a graphic-design tool website that started in 2012 by Melanie Perkins. Melanie taught multimedia at the University of Western Australia and started Canva from her bedroom. The company now operates with over 200 employees in offices across Australia and San Francisco and is valued at $1 billion. In interviews, Melanie attributes the initial success of Canva to her small dedicated team who were able to understand and communicate her vision and raise the capital and investments that grew Canva to where it is today. The initial team would bring packed sandwiches for lunch and have a specific time where they would all sit down at lunch together, share meals and learn about each other. This fostered an environment where the team became invested in each other, created a sense of purpose and worked more efficiently. They have also had a clear vision that employees can connect with. As Melanie has said, “It’s really important that the entire team has buy-in about our vision and what we’re trying to achieve as a company.”

A culture deck is one strategy many companies have used to communicate and share their vision. The deck is a series of slides which communicates the organisation’s culture, values, and identity. This tool is often used as a blueprint to implement the company’s strategic approach to fostering a culture that leads to success. In this deck, the focus of the company’s values and identity is not rooted in their product or vision but the behaviours and skills of their employees. It is not a set of meaningless platitudes for external stakeholder impositions but instead the deck is targeted for employees to better understand their work environment, guide their work experience and shape their interactions. Using a culture deck – or culture guide – fosters an open and collaborative environment where creativity and innovation can grow, where employees feel a sense of purpose and where the potential risk and pitfalls of growth can be avoided.

What to keep in mind when building your culture guide

  1. Ask why you are building this guide.

    Considering the reasons behind why your company exists and envisioning its purpose has become a standard form of operation among the most successful start-ups. Yet the utility of asking yourself this question is not limited to startups, it also has practical applications for Fortune 500 CEOs, business executives, NGOs, social enterprises, and law firms – and the principles can even be applied in your personal life.

    Exploring the ‘why’ behind your organisation and its decision making will help you identify the critical company values that will be included in the culture deck. Cultural values need to go far beyond the start-up aesthetic, they should go right to the core of your company’s existence. The changes made to reflect the organizations’ values do not need to involve looking like a Facebook or Google office but need to focus instead on the emotional environment and the mental support for your employees.

  2. Consider what employee values will contribute towards creating the culture you envisioned.

    Culture across companies can be widely different, even in those companies in competition in the same sector. Copying and pasting the slides from culture leaders like Netflix or Spotify won’t get you anywhere. Each company, even in Silicon Valley, operates in its own way according to its unique core values. eShares, a successful technology company, prides itself on operating like a professional sports team and distances itself from the start-up sector; Valve considers anyone working overtime an indication of a failure in their planning or communication; and Spotify sees their vision as their roadmap and the culture they create as the car to take them there.

    The cultural values Netflix implements would not always work in another company like Deutsche Bank. Each company needs to consider its core values. If your company is already successful and has grown or is in the growth phase, identifying the underlying values that have led to success might be a valuable exercise.  As it can become far too difficult for one executive to control culture when a company grows to over 100 employees, the culture deck becomes the tool to communicate and implement behaviours based on the successful values you had at the beginning.

  3. Decide how you will implement these values in practice.

    Don’t just list the values that led to your initial success, but also realise how they can be demonstrated in action. Without actions that go beyond the creation of a culture deck, your culture will not change. Discuss with your team specific behaviours that would reflect the values and walk through different potential scenarios with them to help identify how the values can inform practices.

Before you start deciding on the colour of the walls to put in your lobby and choosing between Moroccan Mondays or Fiesta Fridays, ask yourself if this is achieving the ‘why’ goals you set in your emphasis on culture.

By starting from clear principles and building clear guidelines, it is possible to build a deeper more sustainable culture.

Gaia Grant (PhD) is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Sydney Business School in the Discipline of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, focusing on research into innovation paradoxes and ambidextrous leadership. Gaia is also a Director of Tirian Innovative Solutions, & the co-author (with Andrew Grant) of a number of books including ‘The Innovation Race’, and “Who Killed Creativity?”.

Andrew Grant is the Director of Tirian Innovative Solutions, and co-author (with Dr Gaia Grant) of a number of books including ‘The Innovation Race’, and “Who Killed Creativity?”.