It was on the second floor of an uninspiring office building just north of the Marylebone flyover. Just a typical boardroom with sliding glass doors to an open plan office.
There were no brightly coloured bean bags, no funky furnishings, just a plain old magnolia-painted room. It was the 90s after all. But whilst it didn’t look anything fancy, the fact is, that room was the beating heart of the company.
And what made this boardroom special were the two rituals that took place inside it.
The first. Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 we’d get together in that room for an all-hands meeting, the WMM. We’d go around the table, talk about what was on our minds and what we were up to. The founders would talk about any challenges we were facing. That meeting was the definitive organisational snapshot of our achievements, morale and projects. In the early days, we’d all fit around that table. Then as we grew, people started wheeling extra chairs in, or would stand around the edges. You could witness that meeting and take the pulse of the company.
The second ritual. We’d all get back in that room on the first Friday of the month for First Friday Drinks. There’d be bowls of crisps and nuts, bottles of wine and beer. We’d sit back, chat about our week and relax. Some of us stayed longer than others or would dip in and dip out depending on what was happening back at their desk or back at home. Then as time went on, work chat would stop. We’d talk about personal stuff. We’d put the CD player on and play ‘beat the intro’. We all had homes to go to, but lots of us stayed late. Why? Because we cared about each other. These were friends as well as colleagues. We had fun hanging out together as well as working together.
This picture was taken on one of those Fridays. It was a particularly special one as it was also a leaving do for Andy, pictured left. I’m in the waistcoat (what was I wearing?!) alongside other colleagues, Anne and Michele. It felt like a startup, working hard, playing hard and passionate about our company. We’d all go the extra mile because we cared about that place.
And - like every team - the people were what made it special.
What happened in that room on Wednesdays and Fridays made up the secret sauce of our company culture. The trouble is, we didn’t realise it at the time.
Of course, we knew that one day we were going to outgrow that boardroom, but still we didn’t appreciate just how special these rituals had become. We weren’t paying attention to our culture. And if you don’t protect your culture, it slips through your hands.
In those early days, when there were just twelve of us around that board table, the founders of the company did the hiring. There was a consistency in appointing the right kind of person.
But once we outgrew that boardroom, things changed. A new management structure was put in place. These new managers - I was one of them - now made decisions on hiring. We knew it was special working here, but we hadn’t captured what made it so special. So when we started hiring new members of staff, we didn’t always think about chemistry and culture; instead, we just hired people who could do the job. We learnt that lesson the hard way.
As we grew, the culture that had cemented our bonds and ways of doing things in the early days, the culture that gave us an identity, was diluted. That secret sauce hadn’t been bottled.
The challenge is that organisational culture can feel intangible. Which means there’s even more reason to get your principles written down, so people understand your ways of doing things, the rituals that matter, good hiring criteria, and so on.
What I’ve just related took place over twenty years ago. What would I do differently today? Here are five steps any growing company can take to protect its culture:
Capture your secret sauce. Don’t let what collectively makes you tick slip through your fingers. Gather your team at an awayday or offsite and have them co-create a manifesto that identifies and captures the habits, behaviours and rituals that makes your company special. Use that manifesto as a touchstone. Having a visible reminder acts as a compass to keep everyone accountable on a daily basis. Give it to new-starters as part of their induction. For example, imperatives such as “step away from your desk at lunchtime;” let people know what it’s OK to do, and what kind of behaviour is welcome.
Protect the old rituals. Okay, when your team is more than thirty you might struggle to fit everyone into the boardroom but you can still preserve the rituals. Keep the all-hands meeting but move to a bigger space and have people who work remotely dial in to take part.
Develop new rituals. Make sure an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture doesn’t develop, with a divide between people that have been there since the start and the newbies. Develop opportunities where you can throw everyone together so they get to know the person behind the job title. A breakfast to welcome new starters. A lunch & learn with a guest speaker. Inclusivity is key - social events that involve booze and late nights might be off-putting for some.
Tell some stories. Lift the lid on your organisation, unearth and tell stories around the people and the rituals that make it special, note down the things that wouldn’t happen anywhere else. Make them the stuff of legends that everyone talks about. Create a storybook to be shared internally and externally.
Hire on attitude… of course! Keep the founders involved in the hiring process. And when that becomes impractical, make sure that you consider personality and attitude. You want an accountant who can do the sums, but perhaps you also want someone who smiles at new starters and is passionate about your company mission. An old mentor of mine once said he’d only hire someone he could have dinner with. How’s that for making sure they’re a good fit?
Paying attention to your culture now will reap rewards in the future. It’s not only showing you value your colleagues and care about the health of the company, it’s about creating an environment where people can do their best work. This in turn will fuel high performance and commitment. So getting culture right matters. Bottle that secret sauce before it’s too late.
Need help? We’re hired by businesses to lift the lid and tell stories about what makes their culture special (here’s an example of some stories we created for Carbon Law Partners); we run workshop and awaydays where you can capture your culture (here’s an example of an awayday we ran for Thomas Cook Money). Get in touch email@example.com