Corporate Culture: Grow Your Own

Our local rowing club is very small with a general intake. There is no sponsorship, no big boathouse and no paid coaches; just a happy and diverse bunch of hard-working volunteers with an open door policy and a shared love of rowing. To the casual observer it is nothing remarkable, yet over a short period of time the handful of young rowers that turned up regularly wound up in top boats at their universities or on the national team either immediately or within a year. As a result, the club came to the notice of the national talent programme and it now has a dedicated paid coach to bring on the talent of the area.

So what made this club different? A number of things came together but I personally believe that an obsession with getting the basics absolutely right at the start and a really positive culture was at the heart of it. So, how can we translate the success of this little club into a corporate environment?

Getting it right at the start

Starting at the ground level, there has to be an ethos of openness, so when you hire don’t just rely on one hiring group, throw your net wide (maybe even subscribe to a novel community outreach whose ethos mirrors yours and/or let people know that your door is open for wild-card superstars) and be clear about what you are hiring for. If you are serious about hiring well then you must address unconscious bias, remember you are not hiring to make friends but people you respect to do the job. It is not about you, it is about hiring the very best person to fulfill the stated requirements of a job. If you are concerned about bias (and if you aren’t then you should be) then there are some helpers around. While I don’t believe in removing bias related text to get people hired, I do think we can use it to educate ourselves. For example, we can work alongside tech like Talent Sonar or Textio. Have all colleagues trained up on diversity and bias. Assign two the same piles of CVs. Have one colleague work with the redacted lists and one with the original CVs and then record and openly discuss the differences. Learn and share.

Obviously, there are specific and general considerations when hiring. There are the applicant’s natural or acquired skills and talents and whether these fit the specific requirements of the role. You will get those through the experience and/or psych tests. For me though, general talents like clear evidence of determination, curiosity, compassion and adaptability (some people like the term ‘teachability‘) go a long way, especially if the choice comes down to the wire, especially in an increasingly technological world. I have also gone on at length about challenging traditions (Making the most of Millennials) and using common sense when hiring. And let’s keep all the doors open here, alongside gender, race and age balance there is a further wealth of willing talent on offer who are generally completely shut out simply because they are mentally or physically disabled. Not everyone is so blinkered though, our local supermarket hires people with disabilities for various roles and it is worth noting that the lovely man with mental disabilities who puts our trolleys away is the only person that I recall being there for the many years I have been going to that supermarket. He is always chatty, always happy (because he loves his job and meeting people) always remembers a face and always makes my day. If we actively believe in creating a rich environment where people know they can feel safe then we should really think about what each job really needs. And I don’t mean safe to sit back and dodge things but safe to give a considered and constructive opinion on any subject.

There is a lot of focus on executive training but not as much on graduate training which baffles me. I think that this is a huge opportunity to instill and improve both the culture and performance of a company. So much so, I am currently developing a programme on it called ‘The Glass Ceiling Project’. I have aimed it at anyone entering work and dealing with obstacles and am hugely excited by the great feedback I have been getting. Watch this space! It may be considered old-school to have on-the-job training (it certainly seems to be one of the first things that falls off when budget cuts come around) but all the big tech guys like Apple are also famously very hot on this, so maybe there is something to it…? There is certainly something to doing it well. I think that making sure that your current employees are part of this training (in both the development and the delivery) is extremely important too to maintain continuity and communication. Obviously there is mentoring but promising younger members should also be given opportunities to do cross-departmental work and maybe take notes at senior management meetings. This learning can be relayed back to the home department team. Experienced staff can also give talks to other staff on topics or issues that are relevant to the company. Maybe even just a great anecdote about a deal or a process that could be considered best practise.

Really positive culture

Vision from the top is key but, as I saw when I was investigating companies for regulators back in the day, so often there would be this sexy but lonely motto adopted like ‘Being a top five firm in the country’ which had no ‘how-to-achieve-this’ dialogue attached to it (or it would just be something that only related to the sales force selling more… yawn) which often bore absolutely no relationship to the company as a whole. The aims of every single member of staff should be aligned to support the clear aims of the company. Yes, of course these should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based) but everyone should really feel that they are contributing to the big picture. People need to understand, agree and commit and this should be nurtured. Facebook is a good example there, it has obviously had a very stable vision from the top, with a very low management turnover. Big focus on community and famously, connectedness. Notably they don’t tend to hire directly into the top executive roles; they hire at least one level below and then people work up into the top roles. Again, grow your own.

Coming back to natural talents, I am not a fan of flat structures or collective leadership but I do believe that corporates should be structured so that siloes don’t form. Having mid-level operations people (one of my favourite jobs was COO for Compliance for Asia for an investment bank) is one excellent way and achieving synergies and maintaining communication between departments. For example, instead of installing one learning platform per department, we were able to save many millions by creating one system which served three different departments across the region.

We all have our roles and very few are natural leaders. I’m not one. I prefer to work in operational and support roles but, because I talk like a dam breaking and have an opinion on just about everything then people have put me forward. It took me a long time to understand, accept and ultimately value my true nature in our ‘Top Dog’ society. Society has a lot to answer for here. If you see all the popular courses (and certainly all the advertising) it seems that we are all very keen to make everything about ourselves, our money, our status, our success but the happiest staff and people are those who feel that their contribution is an integral part of a bigger picture. That they are valued and that they belong to a community, preferably one that is achieving (This article is a lovely example) or even better, making a positive impact! So, I believe in a flat starting point but fluid response to the well-communicated, coherent needs of a project or changing climate. People who are performing must be incentivised in meaningful (i.e. not necessarily monetarily!) and those that aren’t performing are given opportunities to find better outlets.

If you do find yourself in management and you want to develop your own talent internally then, once you have hired these amazing people, then ‘get out on the floor’ and really listen to what they are saying. Don’t assume that you know better, embrace and celebrate people’s contributions. If you do this properly you will really have a finger on the pulse of how well your company is doing because, unlike what all those courses are trying to tell us, in a company it is not about us, it’s about how what we can contribute fits into the big picture.

Finally, encourage everyone bring their whole self (within reason) and that may mean that a single mother will leave early to pick up her children or that a ramp needs to be brought in for that amazing programmer who uses a wheelchair. It also should mean that middle-class white people don’t have to turn up in corporate suits and conservative haircuts. It turns out that a little rebellion is a good thing (See ‘How Small Acts of Thoughtful Rebellion can increase Power and Status‘. Thanks @Cath Bishop) even if that means pink hair in the office.