The return to office is in full swing, and company culture is on every leader’s mind as they roll out new onsite amenities, wellness programs, and even Lizzo concerts to get people excited about being back at the office. But the focus on great perks is just one example of a misguided yet common approach to culture. For years, too many leaders have approached culture in a fragmented way, focusing on perks and nebulous values without integrating them into the organizational system.
In ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture to Connect with Strategy and Purpose for Lasting Success, Melissa Daimler, Chief Learning Officer of Udemy, argues that it’s crucial to take a systems approach to culture – one focused on behaviours, processes and practices – and integrate it with the company’s purpose and strategy. With over two decades of experience leading learning and organizational development at companies like Adobe, Twitter, WeWork, and now Udemy, Daimler shows leaders how to remake their cultures as both work and the world evolve.
In this interview, I speak to Melissa Daimler about the power and importance of company culture. We talk about how the most successful businesses in the world approach culture, and what it takes to build high-performance companies that are values aligned, full of purpose, and which generate success.
Q: What is company culture?
[Melissa Daimler]: I wrote the book partially because I too was frustrated with a lot of the culture definitions out there. They just seemed nebulous and even fluffy and relegated to HR. Culture is much bigger than that. Culture goes beyond values.
I define culture is three primary parts. The first part is behaviour. It’s the behaviours of your employees that get embedded into all the processes we are already doing. The second part is processes. Think of the interview process – hiring, onboarding, recognition, promotion, feedback. All of those should have the behaviours integrated in them, ideally. The last piece is practices. These are kind of the daily, more informal ways that that we interact and connect – how we meet, how we communicate, how we make decisions and even how we learn. Ideally those exemplify the behaviours as well.
Q: What isn’t company culture?
[Melissa Daimler]: Also, another reason why I wrote the book is because I don’t think culture is the bean bag or the Ping-Pong tables or the free food or the happy hours. Those are great opportunities to connect as individuals and have a little fun, but I do not think those things define what a culture really is.
I think the silver lining of this pandemic in the last couple of years is we have realised that culture is not relegated to an office, it’s agnostic of a physical office. It is how we work with each other. We have gotten a little lazy by thinking it is all these fun and games.
It is evident that we have not been able to leverage culture as a powerful part of the organisational system to help us be more effective on our strategy.
Q: How do you effectively build and maintain that company culture in a hybrid environment?
[Melissa Daimler]: One of the things that I shared a lot in the book is this myth that culture is a one and done kind of initiative. I believe that culture isn’t a continuous act. We talk about strategizing. We don’t just talk about our strategy. I believe that we also need to review our culture, maybe not as much as our strategy, but at key points of a company changing. It is essential to also look at how we are working together.
I was at Adobe; we changed our business model. We moved from everything being in boxes to software as a service. We took a step back and looked at how we were working.
At key inflexion points, it’s vital to look at your culture – i.e., do our values really represent who we are today and who we want to be? At also believe that the companies who are getting it right have that systems thinking approach. They look at culture as one piece of that system and the other two pieces are the purpose (or vision, mission, objective, target etc.) Why we are doing what we are doing, why we exist.
That has become much more important to employees going into companies. The strategy to me is what we are doing, and the culture is how. I think healthy companies that are doing well on both the business and retaining and engaging their employees are thinking about all these three pieces together as a system.
Q: How do you measure culture?
[Melissa Daimler]: Measurement is always a challenge in a lot of these people metrics.
On the recruitment side, are we quantifying how much of the candidates exemplify our behaviours based on the questions we are asking related to those. From a feedback standpoint you can look at the extent to which employees are exemplifying the behaviours. I have used a frequency scale.
I had two companies, both of which were focused on the value of innovation. One was focused on getting ideas out there quicker. One was focused on slowing some things down because they were not getting quality ideas out.
Behaviourally it looked very different with that same kind of overall value of innovation and so one company was the behaviour which I just shared is the one that wanted to slow it down was we ask each other why. Before we get too far ahead, we’re asking why we’re doing this. Why now? Does this tie into our overall strategy? The other one that wanted to go quicker had a behaviour around we get to prototypes quickly or we make it safe to get to version one fast and so you can quantify those behaviours through some of your processes, like your feedback, your levelling frameworks, or when looking at promotion.
You can start to see who is exemplifying those.
I think the classic engagement surveys as well, if you just say things like, does this manager exemplify leadership, you can have questions specifically around the behaviours and have employees evaluate to what extent is my leader exemplifying the behaviours?
Q: What does it take to build a connected company culture?
[Melissa Daimler]: I want to say that the point of all these conversations is that we’re aware of what we’re doing well. Twitter wasn’t perfect either. We are continuing to talk about, as you said, those gaps. I think Twitter, at the point that I was working there, we really wrestled with even who we were as a company. Are we social media? …are we more on the media side of the house. Who do we want to be?
We were really trying to figure out a focused strategy. We also were very open. The leadership team, Dick Costolo, Jack Dorsey, were very open to making sure that from a cultural perspective, we continued to look at our values and evolve them. That connection was really key as well as the purpose and we continued to do that.
WeWork I can say now, was a great learning lab because it had a very charismatic leader and at the time I went there it seemed to be very focused on its business strategy such as upon the co-working space and real estate.
They were one of the first companies that really looked at that, but WeWork lost its way in looking at wave pools as part of its business. We live education, so it just got very focused on other business models that didn’t tie to the core.
A leadership team that was more experienced than what it was would have been nice, and a more diverse leadership team. The Board Members got very fixated on a $47 billion valuation and so when you have leaders like that, you need to set up a system that can push back and that can talk about different points of view and again, connect the strategy with the culture and really ‘walk your talk.
Overall, we had amazing values at WeWork, they were distinct, they were cool and I’d never heard of them before, but there was no connection between those values and what all the employees saw on an everyday basis.
Q: How do governance and culture sit well together? Who are ultimately the guardians of culture
[Melissa Daimler]: Yes I agree. I am talking to my Board Members here at Udemy. I did interact with some of the Board Members at Twitter.
I’m part of an executive women on Board organisation and we are happy to see that a lot of these questions and a lot of these accountabilities around culture are coming up more and more. I think Boards must ask questions about culture and specifically the behaviours and how the leaders are driving that and give me some examples of things that are going well. What’s not going well? How do we help you close that gap? Because again, it’s not about being perfect all the time. It’s that we understand at every moment where our gaps are and we have a plan for addressing them.
Q: Do you think that companies can change?
[Melissa Daimler]: Due to the Covid Pandemic in the last couple of years we have obviously learnt how agile and flexible we need to be regarding our strategy and our culture. I would say a key component to some of the successful companies that have made it through the pandemic and even came out ahead are the ones that continued to look at their own practices of how they worked.
Many companies had all hands once a month or once a quarter. They shifted to once a week because there was communication, important pieces of communication that needed to be shared. Things like decision making, continuing to look at what’s blocking key decisions, how can we empower decisions at the lowest level?
How do we make sure that our meetings are effective and that we give time for people to work? I think continuing to look at some of these issues at an organisational level is really important and it needs to be looked at least quarterly.
That would be my biggest piece of advice, that what worked at 50 employees isn’t going to work at 500. We work at a great example of that as well with the summer camp, at 50 people it’s great to have a backyard party, but at 5000, bringing people together in a field for three days may not be such a good idea.
Q: How can we make our work and workplaces more meaningful? Why does that matter? Would you counsel leaders on this, whether you are a line manager, whether you are a senior executive leader.
[Melissa Daimler]: The contract between an employer and employee has changed quite a bit. When I first joined Adobe I was hoping that there would be a meaningful impact and that I could contribute to the purpose. I was hoping that I would have an opportunity to grow and develop. I was hoping to have some autonomy and flexibility. All of that now has become a must have, not a nice to have.
I think the extent to which you can connect the purpose or the vision of the company to the individuals work on a day to day basis is key. I do think the manager still has such a key role in doing this and so in that first day, that first week that a new employee starts, that employee is still evaluating, did I make the right decision? The extent to which the manager can spend time with that employee to provide context as to how you are through your roles and responsibilities and the objectives and key results that I’m asking you to do. This is how that is helping us move our business and connected to your team as well as to the overall strategy.
Q: Does that mean we need different skillsets for our leaders?
[Melissa Daimler]: We are definitely seeing a shift in the skillsets that are needed. On our platform here at Udemy, we are seeing a lot more people taking courses around empathy and emotional intelligence and coaching. How do you ask the right questions? How do you enquire? How do you actively listen?
I definitely think the skills that I have thought were important for my whole career.
There is finally an understanding that these indeed are true leadership skills and that we need to help our employees in a much more holistic way than we have before. A key component of that I keep hearing about and I’m sure you are too, is burnout!
It’s not like the pandemic is over, we can move forward. I think that burnout is just hitting some people because we’ve been reacting for so long and we finally had a moment to kind of reflect and take in what just happened. People are really exhausted.
I do believe that this is not an individual issue of, hey, go take a vacation, go do some self-care, this is an organisational issue.
Going back to those practices, this is I think the only company I’ve worked for where we are diligent about not doing email or slack on the weekends. There’s no expectation of that. We make it really clear with teams on the extent to which we need to work at night. We make sure we take time during the days to have some space between meetings. All of those are part of a systems issue and we need to keep looking at our own individuals as well.
Practically, firstly if you have values, see what behaviours might represent those values and start having conversations with your colleagues, with your leadership to codify, to get a little more specific on what those values mean for our organization. For the processes. I think the simplest thing there would be to look at your hiring process. I think that is such a key process even today to make sure you’re getting in people that complement your culture and add to the culture.
Do you have behavioural questions that exemplify the kind of culture you want? So the behavioural questions that represent those behaviours are ideal. And then third on the practices piece, I would talk with your team if you’re an individual contributor, talk to your manager to just do a review on how you’re working together as a team. Look at your meetings. Do we need to be in all these meetings? Do we need to have our meetings? Are we communicating with the right cadence? Some of those pieces I think we just start to do out of habit versus even as our team has changed, looking at each of those newly and making sure that we’re continuing to iterate there.