Want to Grow? Start with Culture
Company culture is painful at first, but worth it.
By Ian Parsons, Stories & Science
When we started growing the team at Stories & Science early in 2017, I told team members that we were building this company together and that we could all shape our company’s culture. No one seemed to want to offer any suggestions for the kind of culture they would like to see. I wanted everyone to have a sense of ownership in the work we were doing and to avoid letting our culture grow untended. I became frustrated, until I realised that my management style was getting in the way.
Despite my best intentions, I wanted complete control and oversight. I was checking every piece of work that was going out, editing Facebook posts after they had been published and finding mistakes everywhere. Given my background as a book editor (whose sole purpose is to fix mistakes and suggest improvements), I understand where that comes from, but it was pretty debilitating as a management style. In between we had spreadsheets and task lists, none of which worked to solve fundamental issues of task ownership. We learnt the hard way that the latest tools don’t solve communication issues and bad leadership.
What I’ve since realised is that team culture is in many ways similar to the yeast cultures used to make bread. Without them, the bread will just stay an inedible lump, but give them the right environment – enough sugar and the right temperature – and they transform the dough.
In companies, culture is also a growth agent. If the culture is negative or toxic, it’s unlikely you’ll see much sustainable growth. Sure, you might achieve short-term success, but your core team might also need to be replaced every year or so as they get fed up or move on. Or, just as bad, your culture could be ideal for a certain group of people, but exclude others. For example, we started out as an all-white team, but as the team grows our cultural mix is improving.
How did our environment have to change to enable the growth of culture? First, I had to step back. In Liz Wiseman’s book, Multipliers, she advises leaders to take a consulting role in their teams. In our team, this means more questioning and less direction. We pass tasks back to their owners with comments like “this is completely your call to make”, or “thanks for asking for my input, but how do you think we should proceed?” We ask questions to gain understanding, and instead of dictating solutions (and feeling precious about them), we collaborate and develop shared strategies that belong to everyone.
Secondly, I had to tone down criticism. When we started out, I valued excellence above everything else. It sounds counter-intuitive, but this severely limited the growth of team members. They had zero room to make mistakes, so they played it safe and waited on me to provide direction. When the criticism stopped and task ownership increased, they felt empowered to explore, and we suddenly had a safer environment where mistakes were seen as a natural part of growth.
Even though we try to have as much fun together as possible, we also take our culture seriously. It comes up maybe twice a month in our Monday standup meetings, where we usually take a bit of extra time to reset after the weekend, address workflow issues and share new ideas. Over the last year, we’ve developed a culture of which we’re incredibly proud and a list of growing core beliefs:
- Explore -> Make mistakes -> Learn -> Share -> Grow.
- Each team member has agency, from our new intern to the two directors.
- Outcomes are important, not office hours. Leave, remote work and office hours are negotiated with the team.
- When work pressure goes up, we strive for an intense environment, not a tense one.
- Technology is there to enhance communications, not replace it. We use Asana, Slack and Toggl to enhance what we do, but important discussions happen face to face.
A year from now, I hope our culture has developed even more. My job is to create the right environment for this culture to grow. Part of that is actively shepherding it as a leader within the team, but it’s also stepping back and giving the team the freedom to grow it themselves. It’s an ongoing process and painful at times, but building a strong and welcoming company culture is worth it.