Company culture is an important topic and driver for success in any business. This is particularly true in the tech space, where developers can easily find other opportunities if their environment doesn’t allow them to fully explore their potential. But whose responsibility is it to create a healthy work culture?
At our latest event in The Future of Work series, we talked culture with Quraish Behari, CEO of Derivco, and Alexandria Procter, CEO and Co-Founder of DigsConnect.com. This is an abridged transcription of the discussion.
You can also see the top insights from the evening here.
As someone who’s thought about the word culture, did you ever figure out what it means?
We all think that it’s this ethereal thing, that we’re not going to be able to define. We can’t put our finger on it, but it’s that feeling that you have when you need assistance, you know where to go, and you can get it. When you are trying to figure out what the right thing is to do, which direction to go in, you feel secure in the fact that if you make a call, and it’s the wrong call, it’s okay.
That’s what culture is, so you can feel it. It’s that innate feeling that you have whenever you’re trying to do something in the organisation, you’re trying to make a decision, you’re trying to be a part of something, and it’s something that’s larger than just you (…).
It’s not a special formula, kind of item that you can’t attain, because nobody can define it. If you can define that feeling, which most of us would know, when we felt that at one point, and then create a situation, or an environment that allows for that to keep recurring. That’s good culture.
You said it’s not you. It doesn’t start at the top. It’s from everyone. As businesses scale, how does that get communicated?
It’s still hard to translate what you have in your head, and what you think the culture needs to be, and what you prize, and then also take feedback from people that are joining the organisation, and then mash that together, and end with something that works for everybody.
A culture is not down to one individual, but the leader of the organisation needs to make it possible for that type of culture to be bred.
Meaning you have to take away the hurdles that trip people up all the time. You have to take away silly mechanisms. One of the mechanisms, we talk about innovation. I might bring it up a bit later, but innovation at most large organisations is usually treated as a big ticket item.
There’s a monetary reward attached to it, more often than not, and that I see as one of the hurdles, because, why am I not allowed to innovate, even on the smallest of processes, and the tiniest items in our world, that’s going to make us just that tiny bit percentage better than what we do yesterday, till today? It’s those hurdles that it’s the leader’s responsibility to identify and remove.
- Don’t create bonus-ing mechanisms that are going to create internal competition between people.
- Don’t single people out for failure, when failure is meant to be a learning opportunity, and don’t take away the learning opportunity.
- Don’t shut down avenues that people have to have a voice, and don’t make decisions in isolation.
Those are the very simple hurdles that I think leaders are responsible for removing, but equally, the people that are working throughout that type of organisation have the same responsibility to foster it, because one person can’t be in every corner of the business, to ensure that everybody’s living up to that culture. We all have to ensure that the family works the way it should.
What are concrete examples of what’s happening in your world, in your company, that you’re looking at, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh! We can have this amazing culture?”
I’ve got a fantastic example(…). We had to have someone in the company, they had to leave, and his job was working with all our school partners. Universities and colleges, and I took his work, on top of all my work, and I was really stressed with it. I was just drowning in my work, and I just felt like I couldn’t get through all of it, and then today [another employee] just came back to the office, and she’s like, “I just want to let you know that I spoke to this one new school partner, and I’ve been onboarding him, and went through the process. Basically, the entire process, I’ll go and onboard the school, partner them”(..).
She’s taken initiative, done the work. She knew that I was drowning under my work. Taking it on, learnt what I’ve been doing without even asking for direction. Was taking initiative. Close the deal. Hadn’t done any training, or anything. She just did it, and we prize that so much at DigsConnect!
Are you taking initiative?
Are you going out there, and just wowing us? She’d done exactly that, and I was just blown away. I was like that is amazing! You saw where we were struggling, you saw the company was failing, and you just did it. You don’t ask how to do it. She just did it, and that was really cool.
When students come in for the interviews, how do you go about demonstrating that you have this great culture?
When you’re sitting there day in, day out, looking at the same people, that it has to be fun, obviously. You have to enjoy the people you work with. If you despise everyone that’s a problem. You have to really buy into that vision, that mission. Believe in what you’re doing. It’s super valuable, so that’s one thing I do. I communicate with them the whole time. This is what we’re doing it for. This is why we come here every single day. This is why we do the work. If it’s the coding, every line of coding, every phone call to a landlord. If it’s every sell to a university, every student, every person that calls in, saying their issues. This is why we’re doing it. We believe in this, this mission of DigsConnect.
And then when it comes to onboarding people, I think that what you said is completely true, about everyone creates the culture, but I also think that leading by example is very important. I think between myself, Brendan, and Greg, the co-founders, we set the standard about what it’s like, what is to be expected(…).
Realising that there is actually a line in the workplace, and knowing that treat people with respect always, treat people with honor always. Create a space people can just be themselves, and communicate their ideas always.
Between the few of us, showing how we treat each other was really important. We couldn’t actually be so hard on each other all the time, and be like that actually wasn’t good enough. This is really bad work, and watching how we treat each other, because then everyone else will see that, and then emulate that, so making sure that if we have to have a hardcore discussion on something, there’s a time and place to have those discussions.
So Quraish, you’ve got a wider problem, right? You’ve got over 2,000 people in the company, and, in order to have that many people, you need to attract a lot of people. You need to keep them there right? It starts with you, and then the people around you, and the people around them, and then it’s the people around your company, even, so you’ve got a ripple effect that goes really far out. How do you reconcile these kinds of thoughts with the challenge that you face from a cultural perspective?
I think it’s exactly like Alexandria said, it’s that you have to hold yourself to the perfect standard of what you’re expecting from everybody else, and for a large organisation, communicating it is harder, so email doesn’t work. It’s lots of face to face conversation. It’s about communicating the same thing consistently, and every time, and in a large company, there are opportunities multiple times a day, for you to not behave in the manner that you’re expecting everyone to behave, and you have to use those opportunities to display that standard is not going to be broken by you, so it makes it very difficult for anybody else to break that standard(…).
Every decision that we make is a matter of engaging with a group of people about those decisions, before the call is made, so that we can refine the call that we made.
One of the accusations I used to throw at the executives that used to exist in the board prior to me stepping in, was that they hire a whole bunch of really, really smart people. I’m sure some of you feel this way. They hire, or some of you maybe not, but
They hire a really large group of smart people, and then you tell them exactly what to do, and how to do it. What’s the point in hiring smart people?
(…) You have to actually put a lot of effort into understanding what the culture means for different, diverse backgrounds, and other cultural norms that exist in other locations, but you still need to take that leap, and they need to see you for what you are, and you living up to that standard, before you can then communicate it to them.
It doesn’t matter whether there’s a difference in those background cultures. There’s a common objective that everybody’s pulling towards.
So, our vision statement at Derivco is achieving the impossible through one Derivco. What it talks to, is it talks to one team working as one, and overcoming that challenge. Now, regardless of which office you exist in, what your cultural background is from the region that you belong to, that still speaks to how you need to operate at work. If you’re ever looking for a direction that the compass is pointing, then that should give it to you. Everybody pulls in that direction, so it’s important to have that common thread, and that’s what makes it easier to have people operate under the cultural norms.
So I want to switch perspectives, and say, for someone in this room that’s a dev, or a designer, or someone in the organisation, what does culture mean to them, and, from your perspective, how should they be thinking about it?
You have to operate as if you’re an owner of the business that you belong to, so if there’s even the minutest of things that you could do to improve anything within your organisation, I want you to feel duty bound to do it.
And if you’re not brave enough to do that, then use the manager that you have with you, and ask them what they would change in the organisation, or something that’s frustrating, and that they would like to overcome, and become a partner in that journey.
Practically, that’s probably the easiest way for you to start making small differences. We call it getting fighting fit. It’s about practicing the ability to get into the practice of continually looking for ways to improve things, and being brave enough to take the lead to get it done, so that would be one of the things that I would focus on.
(…) For me, and for my co-founders, and for what we’re trying to do at DigsConnect, it’s about passion (…). You want to wake up every morning and feel so excited. You’re like yeah! It’s Monday, that’s awesome! I’m so stoked to be alive, I’m so stoked to be going into this room with other crazy people, doing this crazy thing. That’s what you … I think that each culture is different at each company, so I think when you approach a company you’re thinking what am I buying into here? What is the story here? What is going to be my daily existence at this place?
I think it’s being a part of that, so it’s like what you said, buying into something, and it’s knowing what you’re buying into that company. At DigsConnect, it’s about passion, it’s excitement, it’s thrilling, it’s pushing the bounds, it’s doing outrageous things (…).
Okay, so my question really is what do you do when you think someone’s not acting culturally appropriate, (…) acting in a way that’s contrary to the culture that you want to foster within your environment?
I got some really good advice from someone a while ago (…). We raised the funding, and we looked to hire graduates to expand our operations, and we’re interviewing, and we turn away a bunch of people, because we’re very particular about the first people joining our team. It’s sacred, like a tiny, little nexus to start growing.
Every person that joined would have this huge effect on the team, and so we said no to a bunch of people, and then this guy walked in, and he was just perfect for the role. Perfect! This guy’s available. Brought him on, and after a couple of weeks it’s just like he wasn’t performing, and I was like I don’t know what’s going on, and I spoke to someone about this. I had a mentor, and he said:
“When it comes to these issues you’re facing, 90% of the time it’s because you’re just a really shitty manager, and 10% of the time it’s just the wrong person, so you need to figure out what it is.”
(…) At Derivco, it was one of the first tech companies I was aware of. Been around for 23 years. Most people don’t know that, even know who we are, from Cape Town. We’ve been around for a long time. We’ve used cutting edge technology, so people who were allowed to join, and if you lived in Durban you knew about them, if you’re allowed to join this organisation you felt pretty privileged. You worked with smart people, cool tech. You never got that opportunity elsewhere, at other organisations.
Getting through the door was really difficult, so when you went through the interview process you sat down, and you had a bunch of people sitting there, and they were interrogating you, and then you went away, and that was an hour, and then you came back. It was two hours, and there’s another bunch of people, and they were interrogating you. Then you came back into the three hour assessment, and then you have one final interview for an hour.
Another group of people were interrogating you, and that was so counter to our culture, that we ended up making a lot of mistakes, employing the wrong people. That was the interview process I went through, and they regret that mistake every day now, but we learned to make sure that our recruitment process reflected the culture that we wanted exist in the organisation.
So what you experience when you’re not a part of the organisation should be what you experience when you’re in the organisation.
Our culture focuses predominantly on assisting, and helping each other achieve our goals together, so when you’re in the interview we try to take you through that journey. Helping you understand whether Derivco is a fit for you, because it’s a two-way interview. We’re trying to find out if you have the right cultural fit for our organisation, and capabilities to do what we’re expecting you to do, and equally, you’re trying to find out if this is an organisation you would want to belong to, that you’d feel proud to belong to, and you feel you’ll be able to make a difference in.
So we work hard to do that, and as a result of changing our process to that, we find that we get a lot of people joining that fit really well with the culture. If it doesn’t work, to answer your question, it’s most likely the way that the individual’s being managed, is the way we that we tend to treat the problem, initially. We go through a very lengthy process, trying to understand why there’s a difference in what we experienced during the interview process, and what we’ve experienced thereafter, and try and help the manager overcome it.
Now, we’re a large enough organisation, that if it’s not working in one particular space we try with the individual in a different space in our business, and if it works great, and most of the time it does. The few odd instances where it doesn’t work, and more often than not the individual ends up finding their future elsewhere, but they do that, at least, with our support. There’s very few burnt bridges at Derivco, so, again, it has to reflect the culture that exists within the company.
I’m going to answer quickly. Absolutely. The thing is the buck stops with you, and you decide:
- How am I failing this individual?
- (…) Have I failed in my communication?
- Have I put them in the wrong role?
I think when I started changing my thinking to that, that helps a lot. Where I realised that I need to shift the way that I was managing people.
Yeah, I got a similar piece of advice from someone previously, when asking that same question, and they just said, “Look, if you think that someone’s doing badly, just ask yourself what don’t they know?” That was a cool thing. What haven’t you told them, that’s making them act different to what you expect? You haven’t shared something with them.
More often than not, the answer to that question is that nobody’s told us that they’re doing badly. So you’ll have the conversation, you’ll skirt the issue, and you won’t really call them out on the thing that’s really frustrating you, or the thing that you want to understand, but you don’t ask them why. You skirt the issue. More often than not, people shy away from that conflict, and that’s actually where the problem starts, so we ask that question first, and if the answer is, “Well, I’m not really addressing it directly,” then the problem is with management.
If you’re itching to see more of what went down, you can watch the video here:
Or even listen to the podcast to learn while you’re deep in the data/code/design ;)
If you were at the event, you can have a look at the photographs from the evening too - just in case you were caught on candid-camera! ;)