Beyond Foosball: Creating & Changing Company Culture
Company culture is an oft spoken about subject affecting (among other things) company performance, client retention, and staff retention and recruitment.
Important stuff! The problem is that company culture is harder to put your finger on than more quantitative-based issues such as revenue or cost base. Plus, depending on the size of the business, it can be fiendishly difficult to change.
Having taken over and run businesses with pre-existing cultures (albeit by no means a serial entrepreneur), here is my two cents on the subject.
Do not underestimate the importance
Your team members are one of the most important, if not the most important asset to your business. Especially in a service based business. As such, ensuring they are aligned with whatever culture you are trying to create is paramount to your success. This becomes absolutely critical during growth stages. As you grow, culture becomes more and more difficult to change so be hot on the subject now and you will save yourself a lot of heartbreak in the future.
Creating a Culture
Without goals or objectives you will find yourself trying to create something you do not truly understand yourself. Therefore the first step is getting to grips with what you are trying to achieve. This might involve you sitting in a dark room by yourself or taking a day out with your business partner(s) to discuss the type of business you are running.
Culture is influenced by a variety of factors including (not an exhaustive list):
- How your prospects, clients and market perceive you
- Your team’s motivations and goals
- More tangible items such as offices, holiday allowance, working hours
- The projects that you work on
- Daily aspects such as team communication
Take our London-based digital marketing agency as an example. Digital marketing agencies are a dime a dozen, so there were a few key points we wanted (and are still working on) to be central to the business in order to be successful:
- The more business our clients get as a result of our work, the more business we get. There should be no losers in our business deals with clients.
- We want our team to enjoy coming to work, which involves factors such as working on good projects, providing flexibility where possible, removing negative problems such as cramped offices and everyone getting along such as enjoying going for a beer after work.
- Our clients should trust us as advisers. If a client calls us up for advice on marketing that’s awesome, if they call us up for advice on something not related to a project or even not related to marketing, than even better! It shows we have earned their trust.
- Quality over quantity. Marketing is a portfolio and case studies lead to business. To be sustainable, we should be able to use every project as a case study.
- Professional development. Give the team ownership. Don’t be scared to fail, but fail fast and don’t repeat mistakes.
- Treat people like people. Be honest.
Your goals may not be revolutionary (we don’t think that ours are either), but bear in mind it is in the execution of these goals where the difference is really felt.
Make sure you do not make too many goals and don’t try to solve them all at once. Remember culture is a slow burner, it does not change overnight.
"Remember culture is a slow burner, it does not change overnight."
~ Simon Ensor, Yellowball
Evaluating Your Culture
Evaluation. Auditing. Questioning. Change.
Those four words don’t tend to make people excited. I would guess they probably make the majority of people a little clammy and for good reason. It involves criticism, and whilst people may shroud criticism under the pretense of it being ‘constructive,’ in the end it often involves some swallowing of pride and inward reflection. Without it though you simply won’t be able to evaluate your culture properly.
The first step we took was to get together as a management team and document where we thought the culture stood in relation to our goals. It’s easy to be generous to yourself in terms of your own grading but try not to, it only makes the next stage worse...
Obviously it all depends on your business and your objectives, but the very best evaluation for us was to ask our team and our clients. We used a combination of face-to-face feedback sessions and anonymous feedback forms with questions that were associated with our goals. It was great to get a direct line to where we needed to implement change and where our perception and the reality were not aligned. The level of honesty will clearly vary depending on your relationship with your team and clients but encourage them to be as straight as possible. After all, the process is designed to implement change that will positively impact them.
These feedback sessions should provide you with data upon which to prioritize your roadmap to your ideal culture.
Improving a Culture
Creating a plan and evaluating your current culture are all very positive steps. However, without implementation it really does mean diddly-squat. Furthermore, you may have gone ahead and given false hope to your team and clients through the feedback sessions - so what better reason to kick yourself into gear and start implementing!
As mentioned previously, changing culture is by no means an instant process. It takes time, can take a considerable amount of effort and requires prioritization so be prepared. It took us roughly double the amount of time we had originally planned…and we’re still on our own journey.
Without continuous effort and buy in from your team it can quickly turn into an uphill struggle. Habits become ingrained in people and different team members will adapt at different rates, so make sure everyone is on board with what you are trying to achieve and set out a roadmap to achieve your goals. Culture permeates every aspect of your business so it should be a daily concern, right up until the point (and beyond) that it becomes habitual.
Possibly the most important point, and somewhat cliché, is that change needs leadership. Improving a company’s culture comes right from the top and we’re not just talking about CEOs here or managing directors. Senior management and management teams need to be the driving force behind the change with full clarity on the roadmap.
Ownership and accountability are also powerful factors. Give people ownership of implementing change in order to help the strategy spread through the company quickly.
"Give people ownership of implementing change in order to help the strategy spread through the company quickly."
~ Simon Ensor, Yellowball
For people to have ownership they need to understand the benefits and goals of the strategy so if necessary go right back to the beginning and ensure that your strategy is clear, concise and that there is a viable plan in place to make it happen.
One step at a time
The likelihood is that you won’t solve all of your issues. Or if you do, other items will be added to the list. The reality is that company culture is an ever evolving beast that is influenced largely by personalities, the business environment and wider market factors so be patient. You may achieve some of your goals relatively quickly, others you may struggle with. Take it one step at a time and view it as incremental change!
About the Author
Simon Ensor is the Managing Director of Yellowball, a digital marketing agency in London specializing in Web design, SEO, social media and email marketing.