How to Design a Strong Work Culture with Melissa Daimler

August 23, 2022

How to Design a Strong Work Culture with Melissa Daimler

August 23, 2022

About This Episode

Melissa Daimler is our guest on this episode of Brilliant Thoughts, a SUCCESS magazine podcast. She is a speaker, panelist, and contributor to Harvard Business Review (HBR) and Forbes, and she’s also one of the first ICF (International Coach Federation) certified coaches.

She worked with many big companies, such as Adobe, Twitter, and WeWork, to help their leaders design, operationalize, and scale company culture. Now she is the Chief Learning Officer at Udemy, the leading platform for online teaching and learning, and she wrote a book called ReCulturing, in order to help more leaders build and design a solid organizational culture that’s meant to last.

We all want to do meaningful work that has a positive impact on our communities and the world. And employees are looking for businesses that support that ideal and will help them grow both as professionals and as individuals. That is why company culture is so important nowadays. How do we, as entrepreneurs and leaders, build a strong, constructive culture? Melissa tells me what she learned through her experience in this conversation.

Redefining Culture

Our current notion of corporate culture is a 70-year-old concept, first coined by Dr. Elliot Jaques in his book The Changing Culture of a Factory. He realized that there are a lot of dynamics going on in a workplace, even in a factory, beyond the work itself.

Today, people throw around the term “company culture” a lot, but most of their definitions of what company culture is were things that, Melissa thought, could not be operationalized. She wanted to come up with a definition that employees and leaders could design and have agency over, so she did her research and wrote ReCulturing.

What Melissa found in her journey to writing a book was that culture is a set of expected behaviors anchored on a company’s core values that employees of all levels embed into their everyday work to help make strategies work smoother and help move the business forward towards achieving its purpose. It is something that is alive and evolving, and therefore needs to be reviewed from time to time and updated, the way strategies are reviewed and updated.

Why is Culture Important?

As we mentioned earlier, and as we have seen over the last few years, employees and potential candidates care more about a company’s culture nowadays.

During interviews, they ask employers about the culture of their organization, and a lot of research is being done about the culture AND the purpose of a company. One of the reasons why people are more interested in company culture is the fact that social media makes it easy for the general audience to see what a company talks about and whether they do as they say.

“But I also think that people have realized, I spend a lot of time at work, and I want to make sure that I'm doing what I want to be doing,” Melissa shares. “I think the last two-and-a-half years have caused people to think twice about how they want to spend their time; they want to spend it in a company where they know they are going to be able to make an impact, and they can be with colleagues who are supportive and they feel safe.”

The way we market ourselves, our products and/or services, and our employer brand proposition affects how the audience perceives us and our culture. And for Melissa, it would be best if what is talked about externally is the same as what is experienced internally in our businesses. This gives our brand credibility, not just to the market but to our employees and future prospective candidates as well.

Holistic systems: The Why, What, and How

Melissa has always been a firm believer in systems thinking. For her, “When we can link the purpose (why), strategy (what), and culture (how) together as a HOLISTIC SYSTEM, I think it makes it easier for us, as employees, as leaders, to be more successful as a business.” When companies figure out how to leverage those three together in a functional system, scaling and growing become a relatively easier pursuit.

“Culture is happening by default, or by design,” Melissa says. “[It] is evolving. It's active. It's a verb, not a noun. It's not a one-off initiative of our HR where we throw a bunch of values on our website and that's it. A lot of cultures do get created organically, but unless we [codify] what just got created, we won’t be able to scale it.”

Culture is also its own system. It is more than just company core values that we make a write-up about and post on our websites. Those values come with a set of behaviors we want to see embedded in our everyday work: our processes and practices.

That is why culture and strategy are so interrelated—in order for a strategy to work, our team must have the right behaviors in how they work together to pull off the strategy. And both culture and strategy are aligned with the company’s purpose, mission, and goals, however we want to call it.

That’s why Melissa believes that culture should be reviewed the same way we review our strategies. It needs to be an active review that involves ongoing conversations between employees and leaders as well as accountability.

The business’s core mission might not change drastically over time, but the current goals to achieve that mission do. At different stages of a company’s growth, our objectives shift according to the current situation the business is facing in the market. We update our strategies to achieve those objectives, and how we work together greatly influences how successful we are in attaining those goals.

If we are not intentional in building or designing the company culture, it will be hard to scale the culture as our business grows. And once that happens, culture becomes a pain point we encounter at key inflection points in our business’s growth.

That’s why Melissa advises leaders to be specific about identifying what behaviors they expect from their employees and to embed these behaviors not just in everyday work processes and practices but in the hiring process as well. Netflix was probably the pioneer in this when they created their culture deck back in 2010.

As much as possible, these behaviors should be clear, concise, and observable. It might be tempting to use idioms and cliches to make it sound “more creative,” but these idioms tend to be left up to the individual to interpret. “It has to be globally understood,” she says.

“I also think you need to be really clear in your behavior in [that] it should be positively stated,” Melissa adds. “I think a lot of behaviors that I read start out with ‘No’: No assholes, excuse my French, don't be a jerk; That's great, but what DO we want? What does that look like when he's being a jerk?”

Clarity is important in communication and collaboration when it comes to designing culture.

How to Design a Culture that Scales?

In her book, Melissa wrote something along the lines of, "Re-culturing is the continuous act of redesigning and reconnecting behaviors, processes, and practices to each other, and to the organizational system.

“I strongly believe that [culture] has to come from the top-down and bottom-up. One of my colleagues just recently said, 'and middle-out,'” Melissa says. It is up to us leaders to figure out what the things we want to incorporate into our company culture are and to set guardrails for our employees.

What is important? What do we want to make sure is included? How do we want our teams to work together? What behaviors will give us the outcomes we want to achieve that are still anchored in our core values? We need to know the answer to these questions, and we have to be clear and concise about it.

But our employees’ feedback and input also matter. Once you have the guardrails set up, ask them what they think about the culture deck you have presented. An active review and ongoing conversations help foster a culture that everyone can actively participate in and take ownership of.

Watch out for themes of what your employees think “good” looks like across the organization.

When the brainstorming part is over, it is time to turn their inputs into something actionable and observable. The continuous cycle of feedback from top-down, bottom-up, [and middle-out] maintains a culture that is alive and aligned with the purpose and strategy.

Design learning experiences that everyone can learn together and in-line with your business’s context and daily operations.

And keep in mind that sometimes, culture shifts. Values will change as the time changes. Microsoft and Adobe are great examples of that. Knowing how to scale culture helps businesses carry over new values and integrate the new behaviors anchored in those new values and embedded in new strategies for a new purpose.

Follow Melissa Daimler

Twitter @MelissaDaimler

Instagram @mdaimler

LinkedIn: Melissa Daimler

Or you can check out her website at melissadaimler.com

Buy her book, ReCulturing on Amazon now!

DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.

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