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Culture is Everything

Creating Culture

Words: Victoria Stoyanova

She is the host of Creative Mornings, adviser for Second Home, and facilitator for TechStars - Victoria Stoyanova has a curious profession as a Community Architect. She spends her days building cultures by transforming traditional corporate office environments into happy and creative workspaces.

"Evasive, immeasurable and hard to explain, culture is to companies what chemistry is to couples — it’s either there or it’s not."

For many of us, “work” has changed. It’s no longer about a paycheck at the end of the month, it’s about building something meaningful with people who get it. Culture is the invisible glue that holds everything together in the equation of professional life.

Today’s twenty and thirty-somethings have lived through the 2008 financial crisis, have been directly affected by recession and have witnessed the (epic) failure of once trusted governments and institutions.
So Millennials did what each young generation does best – reinvent themselves.

In a world where stable corporations can collapse overnight, where university degrees don’t guarantee jobs and youth unemployment is peaking, young people have decided to embrace risk and uncertainty. They have chosen new values to live by and have created a brand new idea of freedom, one guided by meaning. An individual declaration of independence, resonating with thousands of people around the globe.
Enters the entrepreneur. The figure with the most desired job title of this decade.

Entrepreneurship is probably what advertising was to the 60s and banking to the 2000s. The symbol of a generation.

Community, Culture, Care

Entrepreneurship is associated with certain values, lifestyle and culture. Long hours, a friendly environment, transparency and flexibility are some of the principles commonly associated with start-up life.

But perhaps the most important one is the notion of community —t he idea of being in a group of people with shared values and goals. According to the Millennial Branding report, the young generation is seeking meaningful connections at work and a sense of community, with 71% wanting their coworkers to be their “second family”. Just like in a real family, relationships between this “second family” are built on trust, empathy and shared experiences.

In a work environment, empathy means understanding the day-to-day needs of individuals and adapting to them. Picking up relatives from the airport could be more important than a weekly team meeting and working from home might be a great way to allow employees to take a break after a big project.

This is why flexibility is key – coupled by a relationship based on trust. Within a company, that trust must be mutual – employers must have confidence that the work will get done, regardless of the exact location or time of the day.

In other words, culture is everything. But if culture makes or breaks companies, how can we aspire to build one that will continuously nurture our business and team?

Demystification

As with anything new or unfamiliar, it’s easy to overthink culture and its meaning. We feel the same brain paralysis as the first time someone said we needed to write a business plan. Or file our taxes. Since we haven’t done it before, we collect tonnes of information, analyse, summarise, and frankly overthink the task in hand.

Instead of spending hours trying to find a good article, a how-to book or a friend of a friend who can help us identify the steps to follow, we can intuitively identify what’s important in our company.

There isn’t a recipe for the “right” company culture, just like there isn’t a recipe for finding the “right” partner or the “right” job. And in fact, it’s in this very complexity that lies the beauty and sheer elegance of culture.

The good news is that culture is awfully simple. It’s basic. It’s common sense that everybody shares. Brian Chesky, one of Airbnb’s founders, defines culture as “a shared way of doing something with passion”. That’s it — a set of values individuals share and the way they are expressed.

Core values, core actions

Probably every company out there will say that their values are to be “open”, “inclusive” and “transparent”. It’s in a little aspirational paragraph that sits neatly on their About page. It often sounds like it’s written by an algorithm which has randomly generated positive words (the list always contains “fun”). But values are not made to quietly sit on a website, manifesto, or an employee welcome pack. It’s not something to be understood about a company, it’s something to be acted upon every day. Values are actions.

Indeed, values only exist when they are the foundation of any decision and action in a company. They are in every customer email, every tweet, every interaction in a team. Identifying core values as a team and holding everyone accountable for respecting them on a daily basis is one of the important things a founder can do to build a strong company culture.

Technology companies such as Basecamp and Buffer are known for working remotely. Similarly, Patagonia is not only known for being a great outdoor clothing company, but for being a workplace that allows a healthy, balanced lifestyle. These are not static, dusty values like “openness” and “fun”. They are bold, distinctive actions. Whether it’s giving back to the community, creating rituals to look forward to, surfing or geocaching, finding what’s truly important to a team and celebrating it is essential to creating culture.

And as work is changing, the role of founders and managers is changing too. Until the early sixties, leadership was about effective structuring and administration. Talking about values and purpose wasn’t suited to a discipline aspiring to be scientific.

But in recent years, companies like Red Hat and Zappos have unravelled traditional hierarchies to build new types of structures within their organisations. Focusing on autonomy of talent, they have pioneered mission-driven cultures.

For many of us, “work” has changed. It’s about doing meaningful work and creating great cultures. By having strong values in a company, everything is driven with intention.