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Building a culture in a growing company - our story.

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By Guy Levine
on 26/2/15

When I started our company in 2008 I had no idea about culture. In fact, I probably thought it was something that corporates talked about on one of those team building days out. I was absorbed by growth and our culture was simple; Deliver results for our clients and make more sales.

As we hit the 15 employee mark I realised why people talk about culture and why companies like Zappos obsess over it. The first time I felt a need to explore it was when I could see that some people would just fit in and some people wouldn’t. It wasn’t that they were bad or couldn’t do what we needed, there was just a lack of chemistry. So what was it that defined this chemistry? I wasn’t sure, but needed to focus on growth. I shelved the project.

At 20 people we had our first ‘Mass Exodus.’ At the time, losing 4 people in the week just after the Christmas break felt horrible. I spent most of that month depressed and on the verge of sickness every morning. Our beautiful company didn’t feel as beautiful. In truth, it was right for them to leave. They all left for the right reasons and are doing fantastically well elsewhere. But it was the catalyst that I needed to get focussed on (as it says on the whiteboard in my office) when in doubt, make Return the best place to work.

whiteboard

(A note about points 2 and 3. ‘Find and convert our who’ is about finding potential clients that inspire us, and that we do our best work with. ‘It’s show time’ pays reference to the fact that every day I walk into my office I am a leader, people and clients look up to me. A bad day isn’t acceptable… It’s show time!)

It was time to build our culture, one step at a time. We wanted to nail a set of core values that would define what we stood for, how we behaved, but more importantly act as compass for who we should invite to join our team.

I was dubious of the old school management consultant method of writing some aspirational words on neon post-it notes. I didn’t just want notes on a wall. I wanted something we could eat, sleep and breathe.

We had just started working with a Gazelles Coach, Hayley, who introduced us to a new way of thinking. For this exercise in building a culture, we used Jim Collins' Mission to Mars approach. We took some time off site to answer the question…

“Imagine you have been asked to recreate the BEST parts of your company on MARS but you only have 5 seats open. Who do you send?”

We then listed 3 – 5 people who fit that bill and the values they bought. Importantly this wasn’t simply on results, but also what they brought to the company; commitment, competency and peer respect.  Once we had written our own list, we compared notes with each other and chose the people and values that occurred the most. It was then a case of looking for the intersections. What were the values, passions, attributes that they all shared. It was at the end of this session we had the bare bones of our core values.

flip-chart

We unearthed four strong elements. Totally passionate about learning and being experts. Love taking on really big challenges. Competitive giant killers. High standards of work. These themes had been around since day one and they are around today.

Now that we had our themes, we let them settle for a while. We looked for the language used by our team, how people describe us and just spoke about them internally. We just kept on hearing little nuggets of conversations which turned into the final statements.

core-values

We were growing quickly, the industry was changing and as we now had our core values, we were finding team members that were a good fit. In all honesty, delivering work we were proud of was our biggest challenge, as I’m sure it is in any growth company (30% + per year). Our coach is really into gamification. In order to move the bar internally, how could we make things fun and invoke our competitive nature?

We started using a system called Tiny Pulse which has become a cornerstone of the company. It does two amazing things. It asks a question to all employees anonymously once per week. Anything from ‘how do you rate your co-workers?’ to ‘what kind of animal would our company be?’ Monthly it always asks the same question, ‘How happy are you at work?’ Again, this is all anonymous feedback and it is brutally painful. Painful but invaluable! Another great feature is the ability to send any team member a ‘Cheers.’ This is an internal message saying thanks for something. We used this as a mechanism for ensuring our quality of delivery stayed high. The team actively take time each week to thank each other for great quality work, or actions that personify our core values. Everyone who receives a cheers, receives a beer on a Friday night. The person with the most receives two. It’s fun, it’s public and made us focus on what really matters. As is always the case, where we focussed, we excelled. We deliver work we are proud of.

tiny

(Note: As you will see there are some 6’s and 7’s above. Feedback which gives us the opportunity to grow allows us to keep progressing and growing, however painful it is to read it!)

A year into the process and we hear our values talked about internally every day. We hear new prospects saying ‘we have looked at your website and it looks like you know your sh*t.’ Internally, we also have a benchmark. It is not uncommon to hear people saying ‘I am really proud of this work.’ We also have the ability to coach around our values. They are even in our team members’ job scorecards. To us, demonstrating that you ‘don’t stop until you win’ is just as serious as any other part of a role.

My advice to any start up or fast growing company? Go through this exercise early. People are my biggest asset. I am privileged to have a mind blowing team, but it doesn’t just happen by accident. The A players like high standards and they need a ‘why’ for inspiration. If you would like to see what we offer our team read 6 Perks of Working at Return On Digital

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