Editorial: Growing cultures in challenger brands

If you come to our office and weave your way into the Cosy Room, you will find our library of business books, amassed over the last 35 years. Within this archive, some of the older books feel historical (especially the ones about the rise of internet), while others remain as relevant as ever. There is only one book of which we have two copies – From Good to Great by Jim Collins. Published in 2001, his views on business culture and beyond are more relevant than ever.
As we were planning our latest Leaders’ Forum on the topic of culture, we thought we would flick through it for inspiration. A few sentences stood out: “A company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract enough of the right people…We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats—and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage “people are your most important asset” turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”
At Piper, we have seen culture emerge as a fundamental driver of brand value, something that strategic buyers look for in the businesses that they are seeking to buy. Yet, scaling culture in a fast-growing brand is increasingly tricky. At 7, 17 or 70 people, teams need to change how they behave and the skillsets they need. At these inflection points, the culture of the business becomes strained if not properly nurtured.
To help the leaders of our partner brands think through some of these challenges, we have teamed up with culture change agency Unleashed (Culture Partner, Tom Jewell) to host a Founders’ Collective series of virtual culture clinics, led by our Head of People, Annabel Feather.
Codifying before scaling
For the leaders that joined the first session, the overriding question was how to scale their cultures in the right way. Many felt that what they have done in the past was no longer relevant. Previously, they recruited every person themselves, instilling in each the brand story and values. Now it feels more forced, having to tell the story in more official ways and via others. Previously, recruiting young people that fit the culture was the cheapest way to find great people. Now, cultural fit is often sacrificed for expertise.
To tackle these challenges, Tom spoke about the importance of first codifying the process before scaling it. To be able to scale culture in a controlled way, you must first be able to rationalise it, to describe and explain it. You need to be able to write it down and to have values that have corresponding behaviours, while understanding what success looks like.
As something that feels so intangible and that is naturally ever-changing, this can feel very challenging to do. However, the likelihood is, your team will have a perspective on what the culture of the company is like – so ask them! One very simple approach is to ask everyone in a survey to describe the culture in five words. Then visualise these words using a word-cloud tool, which gives you a sense of the current culture from your people’s perspective.
For a more detailed approach, facilitating focus groups with everybody asked questions like: ​What makes us different? What are we like when we’re at our best? What behaviour do we encourage here? What do we need to discourage?​
This also means mapping out all the people touchpoints in your business – from recruitment, reviews, training, promotions and even when people leave, and thinking about how you can bring culture into them. Tom maintains that culture needs to live and breathe across the business. Values shouldn’t just sit as a poster on the wall, but instead be the golden thread that runs through everything you do.
Online serendipity & wellness
Another common frustration was having to adapt to the new working from home culture, even as many in their teams yearned to return to work. The leaders felt new pressures to actively facilitate discussions and workshops virtually, something that they have not had training on.
All had found some ways to accommodate the lack of face time. Some did weekly scrums that are more free-flowing and with no functional agenda. Others had set up randomly allocated 15mins virtual coffees within the senior leadership team, while others did more one-to-one phone chats. All agreed that it was essential to do the basics – say happy birthday, a quick call to say well done.
Tom recommended a couple of online collaborative tools – Miro and Mural – that created serendipity, positive conflicts and helped people challenge ideas in large groups. Importantly, these tools work for all personality types, both introverts and extroverts.
Alternatively, a simple 10-mins slot at the end of a meeting to challenge each other also worked well. Some of Unleashed’s clients have even started doing walking 1:1s if they lived nearby. Otherwise, phone or Zoom 1:1s to check in on non-work-related challenges and emotional wellness were a simple and effective gauge.
Some clients had invested in a handful of people from across the company to become ​Mental Health First Aiders,​to spot worrying signs early and create a more supportive culture before wellbeing problems escalate. Access to services like ​Sanctus​ or ​Spill​, who provide an external, trained expert for people to talk with to help them with their mental wellbeing, has also proved effective. Mindful Chef has offered free FIIT and Calm subscriptions to all its employees.
Motivating & measuring happiness
The leaders also faced challenges in motivating and getting the most out of people, all with personal circumstances and personalities. T​he Happiness Index reported the lowest levels of employee happiness nationally so far this year in September, almost entirely related to Covid.
It is, therefore, vital to double down on making people feel more recognised and have more certainty: recognise great work, recognise team members who live the values, give feedback in real time and with positive intent, and don’t forget the power of a simple thank you. Getting insights through engagement surveys and 1:1s can inform this. Tools like Peakon and Office Vibe help to do this.
The biggest insight from Unleashed’s remote working engagement survey that they had hosted with their clients was that teams were asking for much more communication from their leaders, while leaders felt they were giving plenty. Moreover, people aren’t getting nearly enough feedback from their managers.
Leading by example
Above all, leadership is the most important driver of culture. During Covid, simple indicators from the top can make people feel better about work. For those on Slack, leaving loudly at the end of the day, e.g. “I’m off for the evening guys, see you tomorrow” goes a long way to signpost to others that this is a healthy behaviour that your culture encourages.
Alongside this, talk openly about your own challenges with work/life balance and stress. This creates a normalisation around discussing mental health which is an important first step. Also, share your home life / work life boundaries to encourage others to create their own.
In our library, next to From Good to Great, is another classic – Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, founder of environmental brand Patagonia. His advice is more pertinent than ever and reflects how we described our own culture back in 1985: “Learn. Earn. And have fun”.
“Remember, work has to be fun. We value employees who live rich and rounded lives. We run a flexible workplace, and we have ever since we were a blacksmith shop that shut down whenever the waves were six feet, hot and glassy… A serious surfer doesn’t plan to go surfing next Tuesday at two o’clock. You go surfing when there are waves and the tide and wind are right.”