Culture should not be created as a marketing strategy; it should engage employees and create shareholder value

- May 27, 2015 5 MIN READ

I had the opportunity yesterday to sit down with a 31-year-old startup CEO, and ask him about his story. Hitesh spoke with great passion about the things he had been trying to create in his one-year-old startup.

What really excited me about our conversation was his emphasis not on the new products his team was creating, but on the new culture his team was creating. It’s a culture that’s not being used as a shiny sales or marketing strategy, but as a fundamental new way of conducting business on a daily basis – a culture designed to both actively engage employees around the world and create shareholder value.

Although he has a lean startup of just six employees, he wanted to focus on creating a culture that had real meaning. He wanted his team to know that they were doing things a certain way because there was a logic to them – things were not random, but mindful and purposeful. Hitesh wanted to execute his own vision, and create a legacy for his teams to take forward, no matter where their careers took them in the future.

I think a lot about purpose and what drives me in my work every day. Invariably, my answer is that while I do most things because I have to (eating, sleeping, washing behind my ears, etc.), the things that fulfil me, especially at work, tend to come from their intangible value and my passion for them.

Research indicates that after a certain level, a higher salary does not inspire or motivate people. What does inspire people, however, is creativity, a sense of joy at being able to make a difference, being able to have fun, having the time and flexibility to perform, and believing our efforts in some way elevate our lives beyond the mundane details of everyday life.

As humans, we strive to create something special and unique. A company culture that can satisfy this need for each employee is something forward-thinking companies of all sizes seek to create in order to attract and retain the best possible talent.

The work culture I enjoy working in has changed over time. Perhaps, it’s my awareness of the impact of work culture has on me is greater now. Rapid changes in technology have also eliminated companies’ reticence towards having flexible work cultures.

Millennials now demand that their companies focus on the intangibles of what a job and a career bring to their lives. They’re no longer satisfied with a paycheck at the end of a 9-5, five-day work week. There’s an entire generation of workers who care more about finding meaningful work than having a regular work schedule. Getting paid is no longer enough – especially if your job is to create soul-sucking spreadsheets – the expectation is now for passion and nurturing.

UCaaS company Unified Inbox recently launched a unique Global Intern Program, going beyond the more obvious job characteristics to focus heavily on culture. As a startup, their focus on culture was surprisingly strong.

Toby Ruckert, Unified Inbox’s CEO, explained what’s behind his focus on culture: “There are different types of CEOs. For example, a founding CEO creates a company’s culture. Culture, however, is not just created by the CEO, but from the team of people who comes together to create it for the company. As Unified Inbox’s founding CEO, my objective is to bond the team together.”

“To achieve something that’s not been done before, you need to unify people with a certain culture. You need the vision you create in the beginning to live beyond the time you’re no longer there. Ideas take it much further than people think. In the long run, it is this driving force that is the real purpose of work culture.”

What complicates culture and talent sourcing today is the fact that it no longer comes with office boundaries. For most of us, the norm is to now work across geographies, time zones, and locations – often remotely and from “non-traditional” workspaces. This can add an element of natural charm to your work, like me writing an article in sun-kissed Ludwigsburg and sending it to sun-drenched Florida for a review. It doesn’t matter whether I am in quiet, college town Ann Arbor today or busy, startup-packed Amsterdam tomorrow. And it shouldn’t. We live in a world of always-on connectivity.

But this remoteness does bring new pressures and challenges to a company that is trying to build its culture. And it can potentially make it harder for a company to attract talent or showcase a consistent culture. Having people who work remotely to serve customers around the globe, Toby considers culture to be Unified Inbox’s single biggest challenge as an organisation.

“Culture is not something you can write down, and it’s not there forever. It changes dynamically with the needs of company, the people you hire, the mix products and services, and even the specific period in time. It takes much longer to build culture in a remote team,” Toby said.

“Having said that, all teams have a culture, and remote teams have a basic set of values (which is common between all who work remotely) already aligned with each other, naturally more so than people who only work local. They also have a common set of values which proceeds into company culture and there are naturally more synergies in a remote one.”

So while it may take longer to build deep values, at the same time, in a remote environment you already have something to start with. A culture or value system that says, ‘I can work anywhere anytime, and it’s the results that matter.’

In a traditional office environment with everyone sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, superficial judgments are often made on ‘face time’ over the results delivered. And a globally dispersed remote work culture is already an international culture.

From an organisational perspective, it is critical to develop the type of culture that attracts the talent you need for your business to be successful. An entrepreneur friend of mine who recently closed his shop told me, “Now I am back to the drawing board, asking ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’”

In a world where we often spend our lifetimes seeking purpose, it wasn’t just a question relatives ask children at birthday parties. How firms attract talent to fit and advance their unique cultures was harder than it first seemed to be.

Toby reaffirmed this sentiment: “The real question here is: ‘What is talent?’ Talent is often something that people see in you that you don’t see in yourself because you’re a natural at doing something. When you perform with extraordinary capabilities and others applaud you, you eventually notice. Many times, people don’t even know they have this talent.”

“You need to develop an eye for spotting talent. Everyone wants to hire successful people in the nicest offices, offering the fanciest perks, but success happens when people discover their talents within the framework of the culture you develop.”

Now in my 30s, and (finally!) doing something that I love, I asked myself what could I have done to make this discovery earlier? What work culture would have prompted me to find my calling?

Have you discovered your talent?

Image: Workforce.com

Upasna Kakroo works as a Digital Storytelling Consultant with Unified Inbox, a Singapore-based technology startup. She is the Co-founder of content marketing and branding startup Brandanew. Previously, she has worked with Experteer, Rocket Internet and McKinsey & Co.