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How to leave lip service behind when building company culture

4 Dec 2020

Superhuman’s Kristen Hayward explains why actions speak volumes over words when laying the foundations for a healthy company culture.

It’s not hard to become immune to the phrase ‘company culture’ in today’s working world. Like many a zeitgeist before it, the concept of culture has been overused to the point of saturation and hijacked to disappointing ends.

But we shouldn’t forget that it’s still incredibly important. The issue is how easy it can be to slap the right words on a job ad or a company website and leave it at that. This might help you attract some great candidates, but you probably won’t hold on to them for very long once they realise they were just that – words.

Culture also can’t be based purely on aesthetics and convenience. For too many leadership teams, great culture is demonstrated through complimentary meals, free beers and ping-pong tables. If you can have all of those things and they don’t pull your attention away from more pressing areas, that’s great. But these things should come after the cultural elements that people – AKA the very fibres of any organisation – really need. This non-exhaustive list includes diversity and inclusion, equity and equality, safety and respect.

Establishing a healthy company culture is a long-term investment that requires evaluation and reflection, consultation, feedback, listening and plenty of thought. And as Superhuman’s Kristen Hayward makes clear, there is one crucial thread that tethers all of these together: action.

Hayward is the email experience firm’s head of people, having previously worked in recruitment for companies such as Hustle, Flexport and Zenefits. Some of the hallmarks of a healthy company culture, she said, are “open communication lines and omnidirectional feedback, organic collaboration and customer obsession”.

“Any company’s best chance for success is to hire and retain amazing employees who can turn the mission and vision into reality,” she explains. “Once you hire great people, a big part of them being successful towards your mission is the culture.

“A great culture truly enables all to do their very best work. There’s also a fair amount of research demonstrating that psychological safety is the number one predictor of success on teams.”

Actions to take for an authentic company culture

Given her extensive experience in the industry, Hayward shares her top tips for taking those initial steps towards a healthier company.

“The first step is to get really clear on what healthy culture looks like for you; this is often defining a core set of values or operating principles,” she says. “The Advantage [by Patrick Lencioni] has an excellent process for doing this. Once you’ve defined it, the next step is to message it internally and externally.

“If you’ve nailed your culture, you may lose candidates in the recruiting process because if your culture is accurate and well defined, it likely won’t be what each person is looking for, and that’s OK.

“Once you’ve defined and messaged, hold yourself accountable for continuously measuring it. We use people-management platform Lattice for this, and it’s been a game changer for us at Superhuman to make sure we’re celebrating successes and being honest with ourselves about where we have room to grow.

“Lastly, messaging and measuring are an ongoing process.”

Common pitfalls to avoid

The two biggest pitfalls Hayward comes across in her line of work both come back to businesses valuing words above actions.

“The first one is when companies tell candidates and employees what they want to hear on sensitive issues such as diversity and inclusion and work-life balance,” she says. “When put on the spot by a team member or trying to close a candidate, it’s hard to admit you don’t prioritise work-life balance or have no intention of investing in diversity, equity and inclusion. As a result, companies fall into the trap of communicating caring, but don’t follow up with action.

“The disconnect between actions and words misleads candidates and employees and creates mistrust and disengagement. An important part of company culture is leadership looking in the mirror and being honest about what actually is valued and what employees can expect.

‘As leaders, if you don’t like what you see you’re empowered to change it’

“As leaders, if you don’t like what you see you’re empowered to change it. If you’re not going to change it, be honest and acknowledge. People may choose to leave or not join the company as a result. While not ideal, it’s good to identify early when expectations are not aligned.”

If you are taking action on the things you’re claiming to be passionate about, a good way of showing this is by drawing on “examples of values being lived”, Hayward explained. Her team keeps lots of examples on file to show new hires what it means to act on core values while working at the company.

“The second is when values are too aspirational and you fall into the ‘words-on-a-wall’ trap,” she says. “Netflix accurately defined this in their culture deck, but what your company actually values is reflected in who you promote, part ways with and recognise.

“The most important part of culture isn’t the words, but the actions.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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