Why Culture Matters

Ask ten managers what their company culture is and they’ll probably send you to the HR department. Frankly, I used to be one of them. Recently, I went through a turning point following which I now consider culture building my No1 priority as a leader. Here’s why.

To set the setting: my company has grown almost three-fold in headcount in the last six months. We went from just over 15 people to now about 50. Naturally what happens at this pace of growth is the controls and processes you had in place are no longer able to give you the same level of grasp on the business as before. There’s just too much going on.

The natural inclination of most managers in this situation is to inject more process, more rules and manuals, more middle layers of management to delegate to so as to ensure that things run as efficiently as they used to. Whilst some of this is necessary, if this is the only thing you do you will – at best – have an efficient machine that simply ticks on. If you’re lucky you’ll stay in business. You wont game-change.

At the start, when you are a 5-people team including two co-founders, everything is questioned ALL the time. You question yourself and the things you create – that’s how you innovate and get a product off the ground. It’s easy at that size because the owners are embedded in everything that happens. So the question I asked myself recently is “how do you preserve that sense of ownership, the constant questioning that leads to continual improvement and step change as you scale up”.

The answer I came to is Culture. Process alone cannot do this. The only way for your business to scale and keep that magic that existed in the early days is for everyone in the company to have total buy-in to your mission and the values that got you there in the first place.

Many talk about values. They stick them on the wall and have them in company presentations etc. But very few properly embed them in the core of their business. I think the world leader in this is Zappos, whose book “The Zappos Miracle” inspired me hugely and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get culture right in their business.

First what’s important is to define your values such that they are properly YOURS. You sometimes read a company’s values and they look they were ‘cut and pasted’ from some text book… they are in essence a wish list of what ‘we wanna be’ rather than what we are. Your values should be what got you to where you are today. And that’s why they should be unique. They should be yours and no one else’s – they should reflect your pitfalls as well as your strengths.

To come up with ours at PeoplePerHour I went through a journey of thinking back from Day 1 and reflecting on every customer I spoke to and every employee we hired, fired or kept. I reflected on users who were pleased, displeased and those who were ecstatic about PPH. And I asked myself a simple question: what made the difference between those users who were WOW-ed, who were euphoric about PPH, who told us that they “love us” versus those who were simply ‘pleased’? And equally: what made the difference between employees who WOWed us versus those who just did a good job, or indeed those that didn’t work out?

The answer was – very refreshingly – the same for both. And here’s the first great revelation: your values internally are indeed what cascade to your customers. You as as a company serve one community: your users and your employees alike. So treating employees as customers is the No 1 lesson in building a long-standing game-changing culture.

In our case – and this will vary from company to company – that WOW factor came every single time from an element of ‘the unexpected’. An element of surprise. Going above and beyond what one expects of you or your product. Delivering more than what it ‘says on the tin’.

I recalled users whom i spoke to who told us varying stories; in one case the owner of a small business based in the Midlands was ecstatic about the fact that not only did he find project work on PPH but secured a long term contract in a different continent. The fact that we enabled him to ‘go global’ at the click of a button was his WOW factor. In other cases it was the speed with which they got bids when they posted a job, or the variety of offers, or because they didn’t expect to get a call from Customer Support… or such a fast response when they sent an email asking for help. Or because we actually listened to them and built features they requested. Or because they were surprised that our characteristic logotype winks at you when you hover your mouse over it .. what we call internally ‘the jiggy jiggy’

In every single case its creating emotional engagement that wins you over, going above and beyond the ‘utility’ of what you deliver.

And I realized: these are the users who are not just pleased but they get FANATICAL about our brand. When we go ‘above and beyond’ they themselves in turn go above and beyond to promote us; they become our ambassadors, our missionaries. Surely -I thought – preserving that WOW factor should be our mission. Especially given that we grow 80% through word of mouth (which conversely is probably why we get so much word of mouth in the first instance).

The same goes for employees: the ones that have WOWed the rest of the Team are those who consistently went above and beyond their ‘job description’ … in fact its those who never considered themselves as having one in the first place. They do what’s best for the company at that time; they do what’s needed; they have no working hours, they put the community first and relentlessly pursue change with passion, zeal, tenacity and grit. They question everything, they take nothing as a given, they don’t wait around to be told what to do. They win the trust of the the team and the community by showing that they deeply care. They tell the CEO he’s being an idiot when he’s got it wrong. They hold no prisoners. They have a deep sense of purpose to what they do…and that’s what gets them out of bed in the morning. Nothing less. These are WOW people.

I consider myself to be lucky to have a good proportion of these WOW people in my Team… they are people who will go out on a limb and risk their job (in the conventional notion) to do the right thing for the company and the community. Its those people who got it through their head that their job is not to please me as their boss but to WOW the user by going above and beyond in every single case.

And here’s the thing: the real magic is not just having just a ‘good proportion’ of these people but having EVERYONE in the company be like that. That’s when a company becomes invincible, defensible, scalable and – in the words of Warren Buffet – “idiot-proof”.

A lot of change came out of this thinking at PPH. To nurture and institutionalize our mission and values we now communicate to our Team clearly that their job, their mission, OUR mission as a company is to go above and beyond, to surprise the user, to get them emotionally engaged, to create that WOW in whatever we do – from designing the product, the user experience on the site, delivering customer service, hiring, firing or painting the wall. Delivering the ‘utility’ will simply keep us in business. Our job is to deliver emotion.

And this cascades down to things in our roadmap.. from recent launches like ‘social connectivity’ where you can find your friends on PPH through Facebook or LinkedIn- something you don’t expect when you just come to get a Job Done – or our Stars feature where you can build your Starlist and follow people through the journey; to things like intelligent recommendations coming next and a proper multi-currency wallet that allows you to trade in the currency of your choice.

But it starts from bold and determined leadership. Where a leader sends a clear message to their team, as i am doing here. That what got us here thus far is creating that above and beyond sensation at every interaction. And thus it’s our mission to preserve it. Only then can we scale up.

So back to where we started from: rather than create more process, rules, do’s and don’ts what we now have is a clear mission statement that cascades through every process and every single employee. Its their job description. This is what they are hired and evaluated on. And rather than process, as a strategy of getting there we only have a list of our values: the elements that lay the foundation for creating that above and beyond experience that has been the bedrock of our success to date.

I share our values here with you, every one of them being derived from our journey and baked deep inside our DNA:

1. Passion & energy: going above and beyond what others expect of us
2. Trust: inspiring trust in others through accountability, commitment & ownership. Seeing things through to completion
3. Innovation: always questioning the status quo and embracing change.
4. Teamwork: making an effort to bonding with the team like a family and communicate openly
5. Sense of urgency: doing more with less
6. Leadership: thinking about the next step and putting others first. Being proactive.
7. Constant learning through observation, conversation and self-reflection.
8. Putting the community first: getting under the skin of our users. Empathy is different to understanding
9. Having fun: being a bit wacky and individual
10. Always pushing higher and higher. Never give up

Alas, we have now made it our company policy to ensure that no one is hired – even if they are a superstar – if they do not clearly exhibit these values. And equally – as we recently had to do – people who may be very competent, conventionally good or great at what they do, yet who do not live and breathe these values are quickly managed out. It may be more painful in the short term and lead to slower growth of the team but in the longer term it is – in my view – the only winning strategy.

  1. Matt says:

    “And equally – as we recently had to do – people who may be very competent, conventionally good or great at what they do, yet who do not live and breathe these values are quickly managed out. ”

    You are of course aware that this is essentially a statement of intent for constructive dismissal for anyone who does not meet a set of unproveable, unquantifiable KPIs? Any one of your former employees who has been “managed out” of the business could construct a legal case on the back of this. If you really are managing people out for not “being a bit wacky and individual” or “going above and beyond what others expect” then I would advise brushing up on your employment law.

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