24 November 2017 Comment | Issue 20 Dec/Jan

Who should create company culture?

Company culture remains a vague concept for many at the top. We hear two divergent perspectives of where it should originate and how it evolves.

Robin Klein, Local Globe: ‘Culture must come from the leadership’

In recent years, I’ve modified my view on the subject of company culture.

I’d always been sceptical of companies setting out their mission and values. It seemed time-consuming, expensive and elicited scepticism.

My view had always been that culture is entirely derived from behavioural values and priorities of the founders. I had seen companies trying to express values inconsistent to those of their founders. Either they would attempt to behave in a way that wasn’t true to them, or those values would quickly fall apart.

I still think the framework for culture must come from the leadership. I now believe there is enormous value in codifying it.

A couple of years ago, my son Saul and I set up our own seed fund, Local Globe.

As we started preparing to give Local Globe a public face – and despite my scepticism of the process – I thought we ought to set out our values. My expectation was that it would take a long time, given it often takes me a couple of days to write a simple blog post. This took me literally five minutes. Those values are now our compass from which we navigate.

It was important they were not bland but challenging. They weren’t vague or applicable to any company but specific and particular to us.

As an example of one value; we are very clear that as investors, we are not the owners or management of the company; we are the support team.

It can manifest in say a funding round, where we are reminded to think what’s best for the company, rather than what’s necessarily best for Local Globe.

We also state our respect for the emotional as well as the rational with companies we invest in. It too has a material effect on us.

We could never work with that approach as a late stage investor or as traditional private equity. It requires an emphasis of attributes like empathy from people in our team.

Although it didn’t take a lot of time to write down our values, I now firmly believe that the codified document – which encompass 10 value statements – will serve us well in the years ahead with our decision-making on strategy, recruitment, investments, and much more.

Robin Klein is general partner at Local Globe.

Chieu Cao, Perkbox: ‘Employees should determine culture’

While company culture is guided by founders, it’s created by both them and the employees.

If culture is forced from the top down, it may not be received well by employees and it won’t connect. It’ll fail and become something negative.

So many companies signpost culture using a set of values, but if those working in the business don’t actually live by those values, it’s pointless.

Perkbox’s values are the cornerstone of its culture, and they were set by our employees. We took a survey, asked our staff what they felt was important, and set our values accordingly.

For example, one is to ‘work hard, play harder’. Every Friday, the beer trolley goes around and we have a drink together. Because we’ve been pushing ourselves for four and a half days, we need that release at the end of the week.

Benefits like this let our employees know we care about them as individuals, beyond the workplace. We want them to be happy and healthy.

For management, their role is to keep checking in on the company culture – it’s living and needs nurturing. If you leave it alone, it will splinter and it won’t turn out the way you want it to.

Perkbox now has around 180 employees. As soon as you get past 100, it becomes more challenging to manage a company’s culture. Management and senior members of the team actively foster and support our culture.

That means we live through our values, and actively change behaviours we see that don’t align to these values. Our employees see that, and it reinforces the idea that we’re all working together.

We recently added to our list of values. As the company has grown, we’re conscious that we don’t want to become bureaucratic, drowning in layers of management. To stop ourselves from falling into that trap, we adopted ‘zero fear’. This means we hold each other accountable, but we also have open communication. It allows people to safely speak their mind.

Chieu Cao is co-founder and chief marketing officer at Perkbox