Company Culture - What Does That Even Mean?

5 years ago

Update: since writing this post, we launched our culture code which you can find here and also wrote about the process for putting it together in this blog post. The below may still be helpful to read because it gives you some of the wider context and struggles that we had in the process.

When Matt and I decided to start a company together, we talked a fair bit about why we thought it could be a good idea and what we really wanted to build. For context, we both came from digital marketing backgrounds but in different ways. Matt started out as a freelancer and at the time was mainly working with small, local companies and SMEs. I was working at Distilled and had been working with clients at the other end of the scale - well funded startups and generally well established businesses with marketing teams and budgets.

We knew that we could meet in the middle somewhere and offer great digital marketing services to businesses of all sizes due to our varied experience. It took a while, and we’re still not perfect, but we haven’t done too badly and are now in our fifth year of business with a team of 35 people.

One of the main things we talked about was the type of workplace we wanted to build. During his freelance days, Matt had spent time going in and out of company offices, including digital agencies and generally not seeing environments that were positive and great places to work. I was lucky in that I loved my time working at Distilled and the team around me, before that I loved my time at Pin Digital. We knew that we had the opportunity to build an agency in Milton Keynes that was not only delivering great work, but also a great place to work, help people develop their careers and generally offer a great working environment - without having to move or commute to London.

Culture was (and still is) a big, big part of this. But honestly, I still don’t really fully understand what culture means, let alone how you actively build a good one.

It’s been front of mind for me for a while now for a two reasons:

  • Aira has grown quickly, particularly over the last 18 months;
  • We’re consistently told that our culture is one of our strengths.

Combine these together, and I’ve been very conscious of ensuring that we retain the strong culture we have, adapt it to the growth that we’re (hopefully) going to continue to see, and ensure that it’s pervasive throughout the whole company - not just a few key people.

When trying to solve problems, I tend to write stuff down in order to get it out of my head and onto paper, which is how this blog post started. It was a bunch of notes which eventually came together into something reasonably coherent. Apologies if it’s not as structured as it could be, but I hope it’s still useful to you!

Defining company culture

I’ve always found it hard to define what culture actually is. It’s intangible by nature and can also be very subjective, so even just describing what it actually means is tricky.

Let’s start with the best definition I’ve come across of company culture.

“It’s the way we do things around here.”

I genuinely can’t remember where I originally came across this, so I can’t quote a source and there are plenty of people talking about it online.

I don’t love the definition, it feels a little “our way or the highway” which is the opposite of what I think a good culture is. A culture will change and adapt over time - whether you like it or not! But there is still a lot of truth and concreteness around the idea that you can describe the way you do things to someone. I could soften it a little bit and rephrase to:

“It’s the way we do things at Aira.”

Not perfect, but easier to understand because it gives you a starting point to think about things. You can easily think about the way you do things within your company.

It’s also worth mentioning that your company culture is not things like perks, bonuses or benefits. These are just things that your team get when they join you. They are things, they are tangible. You can have zero fancy perks and still have an amazing culture within your team.

Culture is also not a list of words printed in an employee handbook or on the walls of an office. This example from the Netflix culture deck comes to mind:

I’m sure that these words were well-intentioned and may have been believed in by many employees. But you have to be prepared to commit to them and show this through your behaviours, values and the expectations you have for the behaviours of your team.

In the agency world, I think it also extends to the behaviours that you expect from your clients. Obviously they won’t be expected to fall in line exactly with your own culture, but if they are a million miles away in terms of how they treat your team and how they act, then it can be detrimental to your own culture in a number of ways. If a client talks down to a member of your team and shows them a lack of respect, accepting that behaviour isn’t going to do your own culture any favours.

Your culture will adapt on it’s own

You can shape and direct culture to be what you want it to be, especially in the early days of a company. But I think there is little point in trying to control your culture 100%. It’s easy (and somewhat understandable) to think that the company founders/leaders have the most influence, but the truth is that anyone can impact the culture of a company - both good and bad.

Even if you could control it, that won’t last forever as you grow. To bring in another relevant quote which I like:

“What got you here, won’t get you there.”

Marshall Goldsmith

This quote really resonated with me in a bunch of ways. It relates to lots of things outside of company culture such as processes and systems. For example, when you’re small and growing, you may get away with a lack of processes around things like staff onboarding or HR, but not having processes in place as you grow can put you at risk.

But it applies even more to culture and the way that you do things because, well, things change. Let’s look at an example.

Google get a lot of criticism for pushing the mantra within the company of “don’t be evil.” I get why, they’ve done some pretty shitty things as they’ve grown. But that was the mantra of the company when it was very young, they now employ over 80,000 people, turnover billions of dollars and are accountable to their shareholders. Do they want to do evil things? Of course not, but like it or not, they’re going to have to make decisions and do things that are probably going to piss someone off. You can’t operate at their scale and with their influence without doing so.

We’re clearly very different to Google, but at our company update in April 2018, Matt and I explained to the team that as we grow, we're responsible for paying more and more people's salaries each and every month. This means that occasionally, we may have to make decisions that the vast majority of the company are ok with, but one or two may not be. And that's ok.

When we were 10 people, it wasn’t that hard to make decisions that everyone agreed with. Now, we’re at 35 and it’s near impossible.

What does this have to do with culture?


It’s just one example, but the decisions that you make and the team’s reaction to those decisions (and your reactions to those reactions) play a big part in the culture of the company.

Embracing this thinking means that you accept change in all areas, including culture.

Bringing this back to my point here, the decisions you’ve made previously may be different to the ones you make in the future and this naturally affects your culture - and that’s ok.

Does everyone have to agree on culture?

As you can see from the above, it’s hard for a company of individuals to agree on absolutely everything. But shouldn’t they all agree on the values, behaviours and expectations they have?

Well, I don’t think that’s possible either. Let me explain.

Let’s imagine that you’re the type of company who are “soft sell” when it comes to sales. You don’t do lots of outbound work, you don’t pressure prospects into a decision and deliberately stay away from any aggressive techniques.

Now imagine that you hit 25 people in size and need to start reaching larger, more complex organisations in order to keep your growth on the trajectory that you want. You may well need to change your approach to sales - but you really like what’s worked so far and don’t want to move away from it.

What got you here won’t get you there.

But let’s not focus on that right now.

You decide to hire a sales person and put them on commission for agreeing contracts with the larger organisations that you’re targeting. They take a more aggressive approach than you’re used to, never overstepping the mark or doing anything that is wrong, but they just make you ever so slightly uncomfortable because their methods are very different to what you’re used to and aren’t fully reflective of the behaviours you’ve come to expect from other team members.

But it’s working and you’re signing new clients who are happy with the sales process.

Do you tell them to stop?  Do you tell them that their behaviours aren’t quite what you’re used to and that you’d prefer them to take a softer approach to sales because you’re worried about the perception of your company?

This is where positive and negative behaviours come in.

The aggressive sales techniques and the behaviours demonstrated don’t sync up with your other team members and make you feel uncomfortable. But they’re working and they’re not overstepping the mark.

All you need to do is agree where the mark is and what behaviours would constitute stepping over it.

For example, I’d hope that you could agree that being dishonest in the sales process is not a desirable behaviour that you want at your company.

You don’t need to agree 100% on every single positive value or behaviour. But you do need to agree on the negative ones. You don’t necessarily have to define a list of negative values, but you should be prepared to call out behaviours that are clearly against what you expect. If you do this and someone disagrees, then you have an issue that needs to be resolved.

Where mission, vision and values come in

I’ve personally been thinking a lot about mission, vision and values over the last six months or so and have been aware that as we grow, it’s important to clarify these things and communicate them across the company. I’ve spoken to a bunch of people about it, learned from my experiences at Distilled and even attended dinners with other business owners to talk about it thanks to The Supper Club. These are often driven and centered around culture, so when you start thinking about mission, vision and values, you can’t not think about your culture too.

I sent a survey out to the company before Christmas, asking them a few questions:

  • What words would you use to describe Aira?
  • What do you like most about your colleagues?
  • What behaviours do you expect from your colleagues each day? Why?
  • What behaviours do you expect from clients? Why?
  • Outside of money, what makes you want to come to work every day?

We’re still going through the answers internally and figuring out how we move forward with something that looks like a set of values or behaviours that we believe in as a team.

We also took time at our last leadership team offsite to talk about mission, vision and values and we don’t have an answer yet. We’re not far off defining something that looks like it, but I’m pretty sure that the structure won’t be aligned exactly to them. I think we’re more likely to come up with something that looks more like a set of statements which we can use to maintain the culture as we grow.

That leads nicely onto the next section.

Culture challenges as you grow

As a company grows, you hit a number of challenges. One is around your culture because of a few things:

  • Once you get past 15-20 people, smaller teams of “tribes” start to break out which means that lots of people naturally don’t work together day-to-day and form their own mini-team cultures
  • You can start to work more with remote workers or even offices in other locations and cultures
  • You get more diversity into your company (which is a good thing) but naturally leads to more personalities, beliefs and approaches to work
  • You’re relying on new team members to embrace a culture which hasn’t really been defined or made clear to them

Maintaining a strong culture is hard because of these things (and I’m sure, many others). Note that we’re not talking about controlling culture here, as we’ve said above, that’s difficult. But ensuring that the culture as it currently is (assuming you’re happy with it!) is maintained as you grow and embraced by new team members, is very important.

Having a clearly defined set of values, alongside a mission and vision can help here because from day 1, a new team member understands what is expected from them. You can even start before their first day by putting these things in job ads or on your website. You can also “test” for them when screening and interviewing candidates for roles.

Where that leaves Aira

I think our culture is one of our key strengths, hence writing about it and it being front of my mind pretty much constantly. The results of our company survey didn’t just make me proud but also made me even more determined to work on a few things.

Define what culture means for Aira

I think it’s different for everyone, hence the difficulty in defining what it means. For some companies, they can define it with a list of words, others can do it with a company handbook, some can do it via mission and vision.

For us, this is likely to involve more work with the survey we conducted and some follow-up work with the team to narrow things down.

Work out how best to communicate what our culture is

The bulk of our team are in Milton Keynes, while we also have smaller teams in Huddersfield and Romania. Communicating what culture at Aira means and how we want to live and breathe that culture moving forward is important.

Work out how we use the culture in different areas of the business

Our culture shouldn’t be a black and white set of rules or guidelines. But we still need to use them when working on different areas of the business, such as hiring new team members and working with new clients.

To wrap up…

So, what the fuck does culture even mean?

We don’t have it all figured out yet, we may never be able to define it 100%. But we know we have something good that has come about mostly naturally as we’ve grown.  Our job is to maintain and improve it as we grow.

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