“You can’t crack an egg with a pickaxe”. Four things I’ve learnt about building a great company culture.

This time last year, I launched Project Heartbeat – an initiative designed to effect a fundamental positive change to my company’s culture.

At the time, our staff turnover was horrendous, morale was universally low and I felt deflated and disinterested in my own company. 

Today, we have a significantly more engaged and motivated team. Staff churn has slowed to almost zero. I feel excited and enthusiastic about starting a new year and embarking on the next stage in Clarity’s growth.

Given this transformation it might be tempting to consider Heartbeat a huge success. However, the root causes of the step-change were significantly more complex. In many ways, and certainly from an executional perspective, Heartbeat was an abject failure. But I believe its mere existence, its drivers, and the rationale and ethos behind it actually led to a hugely positive and hopefully enduring change in mine and the management team’s mindset. I’ll blog about this soon. 

In the meantime, here are four things I wish I’d known twelve months ago.

1. “You can’t crack an egg with a pickaxe”

It’s probably a common trait of most entrepreneurial people to identify a problem, become obsessed with solving it, and expect that given enough energy, time and money things will change rapidly. Culture, I’ve learnt, is deeply ingrained. Changing it, recalibrating it, takes time — a lot of time. It won’t happen overnight. And it will always demand attention. It will never, ever be ‘fixed’.

We’ve made improvements, but there’s a huge amount of work still to do. When we embarked on Heartbeat, in his inimitable way, our CFO recognized that I was trying to ‘crack an egg with a pickaxe’ and, consequently, it would fail. As usual, he was right.

2. The small things really matter

As I made grand plans for full company offsites, team reflection sessions, trust exercises and much more – I neglected some of the real basics that every company that cares about it staff should offer.

Generous benefits, some fun perks and sensible working policies are the foundation of any company that wants to put employees first. We simply didn’t have enough obvious stuff in place. We tried to do the big idea initiatives without getting the basics right. We’ve made some progress on this front, and I believe it’s made a difference to perceptions of Clarity as an employer (internally at least), but there’s more work to do.

3. The big things matter more though

I think it was Isaac Oates, CEO of payroll and benefits platform Justworks, who once told me that “a great company culture is about more than having a pingpong table and a beer fridge”.

This might sound like an obvious statement, but it’s a trap I think many startup founders fall into. The peripheral, fun perks and flourishes are just that – perks and flourishes. Culture is something much more profound, nuanced and intangible. It’s about sharing values. Striving towards a shared mission. Collectively experiencing pride and satisfaction in your work. Feeling like your workplace supports and nurtures you as an individual – both professionally and personally. Feeling an affinity with and respect for your colleagues. All things that I’ll be working to improve next year and beyond. We’ve hardly scratched the surface. 

4. Bottom-up is good – but you need top-down

When we embarked on Heartbeat, one of our core principles was to ensure the team drove its success. I felt strongly that everyone should get involved, and everyone should participate in shaping how the initiative played out, what we prioritized and how we tackled the challenge.

In many ways I stand by this notion, but on reflection I was far too democratic (or even anarchic) in my approach. I realised six months in, when the project felt inert and directionless that I’d failed to engage the company’s management team sufficiently. Their disenfranchisement led to a situation in which I had a broad vision, the wider team had some ideas and plans to execute against the vision, but nothing could move forward.

I needed the management team onboard and onside to facilitate the broader team’s engagement and execution of the project. They were a missing link and without them everything slowed to grinding halt.

To effect positive change in a company culture everyone should be involved and every voice should be heard.

About the author

Sami McCabe

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By Sami McCabe

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I'm Sami: founder & CEO of Clarity PR and occasional angel investor. I blog here about entrepreneurship, leadership, building great company cultures, angel investing, fatherhood and personal development.

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