Employer

What is the value of culture in employer branding? Brian Evje helps people and organizations lead change and growth by aligning leadership, change, and organizational health. With his intense experience working with start-ups and high-growth companies, he knows a thing or two about importance of corporate culture.

Have a listen to our chat below, keep reading for a summary and don’t forget to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

What is the value of culture to an employee brand?

Culture is competitive advantage. Culture is intrinsically tied to competitive advantage. If a company actually wants to have a competitive advantage, it will diligently understand how to perceive, address and leverage culture to its best advantage.

It has never been as important for organizations to understand their cultural advantages because it’s also connected to their shared purpose, and shared purpose is the reason that everyone comes into work every day. There is a great need in many businesses for this deeper sense of meaning and shared purpose. For a startup which doesn’t have a history, past, legacy, or structure, they have to demonstrate their viability, it needs to understand shared purpose, and the reason for everyone to be moving in the right direction. It’s incredibly important for the survival of a high growth company to really get to grips and become cultural experts.

What’s your step-by-step guide to evolve culture?

Step 1:  Start with the definition of it and start with the recognition, and the real acceptance of the necessity for becoming a cultural expert. So that starts with defining values. It’s an easy place to start for a founder/CEO, and to ask “What do you want this startup to become?” And think of it very aspirationally. Think of the core values.

There’s a very topical example from the United States. I’m from San Francisco, and the Golden State Warriors (basketball team) are in the playoffs, and they have a fantastic coach who just gave an interview talking about his journey as a leader and as a coach. He was having a conversation with a more experienced coach who asked “Give me one of your core values.” And this coach of the Warriors, Steve Kerr, said, “Joy.” Great, that has to be reflected in your practices every single day. So Coach Kerr values joy just like a founder/CEO would value it. That means that joy has to be threaded through all of the elements of the company in the same way that this basketball team threads joy and their other values, which happens to be competition, compassion, and mindfulness. They weave all of these through everything that happens. So the system of this team, and of the whole organization becomes reflective of the these values.

Step 2: Is how to evolve a culture based on certain elements. I mentioned climate before and these are certain areas of climate that you can focus on. Think of the kind of environment that is going to be an embodiment of the results of the behaviours of the outcomes you want. Companies can look at areas like flexibility, which is how free are employees able to dig into their work and innovate. Areas like responsibility – Many organizations talk about having a sense of responsibility among the employees but they really don’t have the command and control because they’re afraid of giving too much responsibility.

Things like standards – What are the standards that are set for all elements of the company? Especially as the company grows and changes over time and starts to expand, standards really have to stay fixed. Whether they’re high, medium or low, unless they’re defined, monitored and enforced to a certain degree, they will start to slip.

Another one that’s getting a lot of conversation right now is safety. What’s the belief of the overall safety of a company to actually have the ability to take risks, make mistakes, look foolish, and say things that don’t make sense? What is that level of psychological and emotional safety?

Step 3: Test culture, and you test culture most clearly under stress. When there are inconsistencies or unfairness, for example between groups of people who have power in a startup versus groups that don’t have power. Let’s say the leadership team and maybe the founding team versus everybody else. If there are two sets of rules, written or unwritten, if there are two sets of practices or two sets of treatments, that will be a real test of the actual culture, and if there’s a discrepancy in how those two groups behave, that’s a real problem.

You have to look at how organizations face and resolve conflict. Startups are usually bad at it, they are very fragile environments. Most startups and founders/CEOs I work with have a good degree of fear around what it is they’re doing and it’s a very painful process. So sometimes when they’re confronted with a problem, and there’s a real conflict on the table, it’s very natural for them to just want to pull away from it and let it drift off to the side. It’s a very natural reaction, but it’s just not very useful.

I would say finally – bad news. The healthiest environment is one where bad news can be shared. Create a culture when that’s actually expected, where the assumption is when we have a problem, we’ll get it into the open so we can do something about it.

How does employer brand fit into culture?

I defined a brand as a relationship, and the best relationships grow and deepen because of trust. Employer brand and the employer value proposition are relationships. An employer, or a startup should understand that its people are really the only source of its competitive advantage, because we have many examples of great, change-the-world technologies that fell flat on their face because the company wasn’t able to execute, that’s almost always a people issue. So when a startup understands this, then the actual exchange of this relationship, all of the things that the company offers employees, becomes much more meaningful because they’re tied to this sense of competitive advantage, this sense of purpose, and this sense of culture.

When companies are really thinking about their brand, they should think of this as much internally as externally because you can’t have a disconnect. You can’t say on the one hand, “We’re incredibly customer focused, we will always do what’s right by the customer” and then treat your employees badly, because that’s a huge disconnect. There’s a quote from Richard Branson around, don’t treat your customers right first, treat your employees right first because then they will treat the customers right. So the idea is that if you have employees who really feel well taken care of, and if they have high levels of cultural buy-in and alignment, then they will pass on that sense.

Have you got any examples of companies who have nurtured culture?

A terrific example coming out of Silicon Valley is Netflix and I was fortunate enough in 1996 to do an executive search for Netflix, back when it was figuring out how to automate the process of mailing DVDs to people. They were using the technologies of basically assembly lines and micro-processing manufacturing, because a penny here would really affect the margins. So they were figuring out how to industrialize this. Reed Hastings from the very beginning built the organization by looking at what would be the best business model for the internet, and he came up with this way to distribute product DVDs to people.

Along the side of that, he also from the very beginning, as part of the mission, developed the culture that would always look to create fanatic customers, who absolutely loved Netflix. If you go back and look at how they started to do this, it was really intense attention to the customer experience and serving the customer. Before digital media and streaming technology, Reed knew he would be able to take this devoted customer base and make it portable and move it from platform to platform and that’s exactly what happened. I don’t think in the early days of Netflix he was talking about becoming a production company, or a movie studio, and yet he has done that because he already has an audience, he already has a customer base for it.

The company can continue to create new platforms and new ways of experiencing, relating to Netflix because there is this great customer loyalty and devotion. And that comes down to the fact that the employees of Netflix have incredible cultural alignments, and there’s a pretty famous deck talking about how Netflix looked at culture and everyone should look at that because it’s an interesting blueprint. It doesn’t mean you can copy it directly, however there are some very good ideas and good insights into a way forward that many companies can adopt.

It’s really good stuff and of course a lot of that thinking has led to the organizational work of other major Silicon Valley companies. So certainly the Google’s and the Facebook’s of the world have taken things to greater or lesser degrees of success.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bevje, and remember to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

About Jörgen Sundberg

Employer Brand Consultant, Speaker & Author. Host of The Employer Branding Podcast.

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