People, storytelling and rituals: this is how we built a strong organisational culture

Fernando Polo

20 May 2019

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I tend to say that organisational culture is a lot like personal charisma. Everyone agrees it’s important to have, but it’s hard to define and difficult to deploy within a workplace environment.

Our firm is well known for its strong culture. But our Rebel culture is not a by-product or simply the result of strong leadership. It is robust because we’ve worked hard to make it that way.

To me, culture is about established beliefs and behaviours. After 15 years working on it, I’ve learnt that culture stems from leadership, eats strategy for breakfast and, intangible as it may seem, culture is shapeable.

  1. Culture starts with leaders: founders at a startup, influential managers at a mid-sized company or c-suite execs at big multinationals.. Just like leadership, corporate culture is about the shadow you cast. We can’t build a strong culture that is at odds with our core beliefs – that’s why it’s so difficult to radically transform the existing corporate culture without introducing new leadership.
  2. Culture trumps strategy: imagine the year is 2009 – you’re the founder of a small digital marketing agency. Your strategy is laser focused on social media and because digital evolves so fast, you understand the importance of building a ‘collective brain’ in order to facilitate knowledge sharing and inspirational exchanges between your troops when they’re down there in the trenches. If a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration between co-workers is not embedded into the core of your organisation, your overall strategy could be easily undermined.
  3. You can work on your culture: 2009 was the year I joined Good Rebels. The company was struggling as a result of the financial crisis, and so we decided to focus solely on social media marketing. As demand for social services skyrocketed we started to grow. We went from 10 to 30 people in just under a year, and we started to worry we’d be unable to remain consistent and keep customer satisfaction high. An entrepreneur and mentor of mine, who had gone through a similar situation in the past, advised us to build up our corporate culture. “Professional services are tricky – you have no assets, no products. Work on your culture. Right now. And once you start, you’ll have to choose – granting autonomy to teams in exchange for increased responsibility, or relying on the whip to establish a command and control culture.”

That very same day, we began ‘working on our culture’. We didn’t like the command and control option, so we went with a style of self-management. And we decided to make culture a key pillar of our long-term strategy. Building a culture of excellence is a daunting task, but succeeding means a massive competitive edge. Our recipe for culture consists of three ingredients: people, storytelling and rituals.

Organisational culture: People

In his book, Delivering Happiness, CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh advises hiring (and firing) according to your culture. If someone doesn’t believe in the core principles of your organisation, or their actions go against your corporate cultural beliefs, the culture of the organisation is going to degrade quickly. Eventually you’ll be left with a shallow list of values nobody cares about, stuck onto walls or included in corporate pamphlets.

In order to become a Good Rebel, we’ve established two pass/fail criteria. You have to be a) a good professional and b) a kind-hearted person. For more details, you can read our Leadertarian Manifesto. We do our best to hire the right people, but of course we don’t always get it right. That’s why we won’t hesitate to invite those colleagues who fall short of our standards to leave the organisation – especially if the criteria they’re failing to meet is the second of the two.

Organisational culture: Storytelling

At Good Rebels, we’re storytellers. We find the best examples of everyday ‘Rebel’ behaviour and build stories around it. My brother and I began with an internal newsletter which eventually became a book – Leadertarians. In it, we compiled some of our favourite stories and outlined the ‘whys’ behind our core beliefs. As an example, you can read the myth behind our Service Index.

But it’s not just about writing internal memos, or even novel-length books. To establish an environment in which new stories can be created, you need to come up with some rituals.

Organisational culture: Rituals

Rituals help to foster dialogue around core beliefs and principles. Whether it’s one on one coffee dates or large scale meetings – create a name for your rituals, do them every week or every month, and don’t skip any.

Culture is less about words and more about experiences. The mundane day to day reveals more about a company’s culture than a nicely craft mantra or values statement. Culture ‘happens’ when we experience it through the actions of our co-workers. Recurring events and rituals help us ‘live’ our culture and promote the right behaviours.

At Good Rebels we have an open breakfast every Friday where we invite a guest speaker to come in and share their stories with us. We stop to learn, discuss and share our thoughts.

We believe that love is a prominent part of our culture. We care about our co-workers. Veteran Rebels stop by to say hello to new recruits on Twitter before they’ve even officially joined – it’s become a lovely tradition.

The good, the bad and the ugly

They say there’s no good or bad organisational culture, as long as the culture is strong, people can feel it and embrace it. It’s easier said than done, but the good news is that you don’t have to wait to see how your culture unfolds. You can start building the culture you want today.

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