What exactly is culture and what do you do with it? Mary Miller, who spoke at TINYcon 2018, believes people are a company’s most valuable asset. This recap of her speech discusses culture being an evolving shared mental model for how we make decisions, interact, and deliver value.
Great companies are not built off a great product, business model, or financial projection flow. According to Mary Miller, Head of People Operations at Amperity, “People are a company’s most valuable and expensive asset.” She continues to be surprised by how many companies don’t have a people plan, let alone a corporate plan, to maximize that investment. “There’s a belief that culture just happens. It does, but not great cultures.”
You must make great cultures happen.
Peter Drucker said culture eats strategy for breakfast. But what exactly is culture and what do you do with it? Many companies will write their values – integrity, teamwork, collaboration, respect, etc. Then they put it on a wall, mousepad, or desk, and say, “Look we’ve defined our culture.” But as we’ve learned recently, what we say isn’t necessarily true, let alone real. Words are just words and they don’t make culture. After working at Amazon for more than eight years, Miller says, “Dogs don’t make culture, ping pong tables don’t make culture, and free lunches and perks don’t make culture.” It’s easy to say what culture isn’t, and it’s harder to say what it’s.
What’s the last big decision you made at your company? Think about what was influencing your decision. Was it how your boss would react, if some influential leader would be impressed, or were you thinking about a customer or case stakeholder? As you developed that plan, did you base it on doing the easiest or fastest thing, or delivering results tomorrow versus the long-term? Did the decision benefit your personal role or maybe your team as a whole? Was there any tension in the process of making the decision?
Miller suggests, “Imagine pulling everything from the minds of leadership and coworkers and putting them on the wall for everyone to see. Then map all the patterns that influenced your thinking. This would be the beginning of both culture itself and how culture is defined.”
Culture is an evolving shared mental model for how we make decisions, interact with each other, and deliver value to our customers.
Within culture, you might have people who are “responsible” for culture – human resources (HR), the CEO, people operations – your leadership team. Every day from moment to moment, you’re shaping the culture of your organization.
After working in the nonprofit sector and moving to Amazon, Miller decided to join a startup, Amperity, where she leads people operations. She has an emphasis in her work on building culture and a high performing organization that can sustain, that’s scale ready, and that people want to be a part of over time.
The playbook for building a culture
Culture is a competitive advantage for your company. There are three main work streams:
Define it, which is really to understand what your culture is and how it needs to change to hit your goals as a company.
Build it, which is about formalizing culture.
Living it, which is about incorporating culture into the organization. It’s the way people interact and make decisions, treat customers, and how the brand of the company is ultimately perceived by employees.
In the define stage, especially for early stage companies, the company reflects the cofounder and CEO more than anything else. It’s important for you to analyze the personality, strengths, and weaknesses of that CEO. If the cofounder is competitive, it’s usually a slightly more aggressive organization. If they’re more into metrics, there are probably more metric-based decisions. If they’re emotional or impulsive, the company is often taking it on and the employees feel a distribution of focus, rather than a single focus. If they have a hard time deciding in the moment, growth and taking a deliberate stance becomes harder and harder.
After this, you expand your setting. Miller interviewed everybody one on one, from the most tenured person to the person who had only been around for a few weeks. She asked what their experience was in the company and the drivers and barriers they were able to identify. As a third step after gathering qualitative information and analyzing the team, you can start to identify patterns. To make sure the information is as objective as it can be, Miller recommends a validation survey. What’s one action you can do to better define your company culture?
Miller recommends writing your future story. One thing she valued at Amazon was the idea of the press release or the working backwards method. You articulate the future state of a product and what you want the world to say about it, and then you work backwards. You can apply the same concept to culture and you can write a one-pager or press release about how Fast Company might talk about your culture in two years.
You can call them values or principles, but the way Miller thinks about it, the framework of the culture is based on everything you’ve learned. What are the guiding principles of your organization? When you write these, it’s not teamwork, integrity, or collaboration – it’s the language of the business and things that roll off the tongue in everyday conversations.
“Building a road map is like a product plan or a business plan,” says Miller. What are the tangible things you’re going to do to bring this to life? Like interviews, writing values can be its own workshop. Think about someone on your leadership team who might be a culture champion and how you might engage them.
If you’re trying to build culture, you must exert influence across many parts of your organization to bring it to life. One of the first audiences you’ll have to influence is the board, CEO, co-founder, or leadership team. What you need from them is to prioritize culture. You can do this by piercing reality, creating urgency, and guiding them so they can see what must be done. Commit to monitoring culture, and ultimately get leadership to communicate the importance. This is not something you talk about just once.
Anchor your cultural principles around the manager. They must talk about your core values and evaluate against them. Train them on what good principles look like and then anchor them into hiring, performance management, goal setting, and feedback conversation. Then measure through feedback and culture surveys to understand where they’re performing or not performing. Amperity is doing this by engaging people in a culture guild that consists of a diverse selection of employees across the company that come together on a weekly basis. There are a few main things they’re doing:
The guild shares what they’re hearing and experiencing, and then evaluates together how to iterate on the insights.
The guild pushes the management team to evolve in the way the company needs. They build recommendations that the management team embraces, such as the format of any interaction, demos, and what company meetings look like.
The guild celebrates by not just recognizing output but celebrating how that links to a value publicly.
Wrap the system in the cultural principles you’re trying to drive towards. For example, in recruiting, have a bank of interview questions that represent each of the values and those can be assigned competencies in the interview process to determine fit. Make a hiring decision based on your cultural principles – not just for job function. What’s the most impactful way that you can start to anchor culture in your organization?
Change is the new normal. Culture is not a fixed thing.
There are things that you would put in place today, and in two years you may think they’re no longer relevant or you’ve drifted. Yes, things will change, and it’s up to you to make it happen.
Mary Miller spoke at this year's TINYcon 2018. To reserve your tickets to next year's TINYcon, and make sure that you're keeping up to date with the latest in employee engagement and company culture, get your early bird tickets now!
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