Events: Culture learnings from our partner brands

With the rapid cancellation of all social events over the last couple of weeks, we now feel privileged to have been able to spend time at the beginning of November (in the superb Ham Yard Hotel) with the senior leadership teams from across all of our brands. Thank you to Francesca and the team for making it all happen.

Some people we hadn’t seen in person for months. A handful, we met for the first time without the Zoom filter. It reminded us of the importance of informal conversations. The serendipity of ideas that can spark innovation and learning. Fingers crossed we can do it again next year.

Among the clinking of wine glasses, we took some time out to discuss a topic that is crucial to both us and our brands – culture. What defines it, why it’s important, and how it impacts on performance and growth. It was wonderful to hear all the great examples from across our brands that we had never heard before.

We’ve picked out the key themes for you (a rather random 13 of them).

Pen the purpose
A brand’s purpose is not only what drives the consumer proposition, it is also the reason (not money) why people get out of bed in the morning and come to work.

Culture comes from everyone understanding the purpose, feeling part of it and helping to drive it. It’s about more than just the day job.

Purpose and the culture are closely linked and, although they are typically both there in spirit, they need putting down on paper. You can only start communicating the culture once you’ve done this – on the back of the toilet door, above the water cooler, in email signatures and out-of-office replies. B Corp can help in codifying a lot of this.

Vision driving value
It’s the responsibility of the founder and leadership team to set the vision and ensure that the team understand where the business is headed. This shapes the culture around growth and each person’s role in delivering the purpose and vision, which has a pivotal impact on performance.

It’s important to acknowledge that it is harder to keep a culture as a business grows. Knowing this and preparing for it is essential. It is the differentiator that makes people want to work for you. Once you start losing it, it’s slow and painful to get back. It also makes businesses less valuable as buyers of businesses increasingly want brands that have a positive impact on the world as well as on other businesses in their group.

Culture is brand
Culture is the intersection between how the team perceive and experience the business and how customers perceive and experience the brand. The external tone of voice is often a replica of how the team speak to each other in the kitchen. Customers increasingly care about the culture of the brands they buy from, but it needs to be genuine as they are easily disappointed when it doesn’t live up to their expectations.

Founders set the tone
What the culture looks like emanates from the top. For some, one of their first hires is a People & Culture Director or an early promotion for someone in the business who really cares about it. Some founders are naturally good at culture and managing people but, for those that are not, recognising that they need help will have a big impact on how well the business can grow.

The best leaders don’t take themselves too seriously and have fun with the team while maintaining trust and authority. Their leadership style has a big impact on performance.

Small things matter
It is the incremental small changes that make up culture, not the big sweeping changes from the top. It is the regular smiles, the spontaneous trips to the pub, the ‘how are you feeling?’, the random acts of kindness that make people love their jobs and tell others about it.

Sharing mistakes
Rewarding people and championing small successes every day is important, but equally as important is supporting each other when mistakes happen.

As businesses scale and they start hiring senior experienced people from bigger companies, a new challenge needs overcoming – their fear of failure. Making mistakes quickly and moving on is what entrepreneurial businesses relish.

Personalised ticks
The best cultures understand what makes each individual tick. Some are extroverts who need public validation, and some are introverts who prefer praise in other, more subtle ways.

Doing it through unexpected personalised surprises shows that the leadership are engaged and understand you as an individual. Having a person or group of people in the business who thinks about this and how to engage the team as a whole on an ongoing basis can be helpful.

Letting go
Forced culture doesn’t work. You have to create the right environment for it, and then great things happen. It’s important to empower people at all levels. If the culture is strong, managers can have autonomy in what they do, feeling like they are running their own business. An open management style doesn’t work for all business, but transparency in decision-making is important for all.

Culture is knowing that the product is delivered through the team and they are therefore the most important part of the business. Allowing people to decide how they delight their customers drives job satisfaction and performance.

Culture trumps training
You can’t put a process down for every eventuality, like McDonalds, or train everyone to the same level. Culture can fill in the gaps. It’s important to keep the entrepreneurial spirit as you grow as that’s why people joined the company, even when you layer over processes to professionalise. An entrepreneurial culture drives growth.

Part of a family
The best cultures inspire a family feel in a team, but this also means accepting that family for the good and the bad. You have to stick with them through the highs and lows, sharing the journey and trusting each other.
Some cultures choose to hire others like them, others hire on values and find ways to be inclusive to different personality types. Bound by the same values, this also means understanding each other’s differences – how individuals and teams work and communicate best. Banter for some, geeky chats for others.

Listen differently
It’s vital that everyone feels like they have a voice at the table, but different personalities will prefer to relay their thoughts differently. Good leaders will put themselves in their shoes, inspiring and encouraging conversation.
In practical terms, you can discover and unpick culture through team engagement programmes that include feedback and pulse surveys, exit interviews and ways of working workshops. They work best when they are fed back to the team and, most importantly, seen to be acted upon.

Virtual culture
Culture can be lost virtually and Covid has been tough for many. Some teams are very happy to work virtually while others want the vibe in the office. Some jobs can be done just as well virtually and some can’t. Balancing these things and being seen to be fair is challenging.

Hiring the best global talent can be easier if the role is virtual but can be detrimental to the culture. In these cases, finding other ways to engage as a team are necessary.

Employer brand
The difficult trick is finding people who are genuinely passionate about your brand and product, people with the same values. Hiring the best people means crafting an employer brand and culture that people want to be part of and are proud to talk to others about (eNPS is a good indicator of this). It means inspiring them with the purpose and vision.

Some use psychometric tests while others rely on recommendations from the team. Some use specific methodologies to unpick if candidates have the right values and skills, while others go with gut instinct. Either way, getting it right has a fundamental impact on the pace of growth.

Retaining the best people is challenging, especially when things are not going so well. If the business can do so, it is the ultimate test of culture.