Is Your Culture Distinctive Enough?

Some years ago I was struck by the research article What It Means To Work Here by Tammy Erickson and Lynda Gratton in which they found that companies who were successful at attracting, engaging and retaining talented people were in fact taking very different approaches to recruiting, hiring and developing them. They found that instead of doing the HR equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses, concerning themselves with industry best practice and standard benchmarking, they took time to understand how their culture needs to be different and deliberately design “signature experiences” to emphasis this.
“Extraordinary companies design their organizational practices around their values. These excellent organisations can seem…well, “odd” – because they emphasize and proudly tout practices that are different from a “typical” company’s practices or even those that are commonly regarded as “best practice”.
For example, Wholefoods’ customer experience strategy is built around providing fresh and local food to their consumers, wherever they are in the world. So Wholefoods have built a strong, distinctive culture in their stores specifically designed to create collaborative, empowered teams – not just a vanilla version of collaboration and empowerment that is aspired to in many organisations, a wholly engineered and almost exaggerated version. Store teams hire new recruits together and have total decision-making rights as to whether someone will fit in their team. They are regularly rewarded financially according to team profitability and can even use their own discretion regarding the use of local suppliers.
The airline Jetblue, on the other hand, found that flexibility was the critical experience for call-centre colleagues and started to encourage people to work from home. Employees can work as little as 20 hours a week and use a community self-scheduling system to trade shifts at short notice should they need to. A 30% increase in productivity, a 38% increase in customer satisfaction and a 50% decrease in management workload followed. The Jetblue approach is a good example of culture being tailored to the purpose of the business function – a different experience was needed to attract and retain pilots.
Today we continue to see how creating memorable experiences for customers starts with distinctive experiences for employees. As recently as last year, the founders of Airbnb realised that to create a world where people can belong anywhere (their mission) they needed to further deepen employees’ connection with the organisation, beyond the ideas of “host” and “home” that were already there, to one of “belonging”. Global Head of Employee Experience, Mark Levy, explains:
“We’ve focused on starting with our employees, and shifted them up the commitment curve, to the point now where we talk about how we treat our employees like founders”.
The recruitment process includes two interviews specifically designed to understand applicants’ core values and whether they share the same beliefs and attitudes as the founders. Conducted by people outside of the recruiting function the interviews explore people’s connection with the organisation’s mission and how people have already lived Airbnb’s values in their day-to-day life. Once on-board, internal tools and systems encourage people to get to know each other as people, not just as work-colleagues, celebrating anniversaries, birthdays and baby showers. Perhaps most distinctive of all is the amount of time the whole company spends together – everyone in the organisation joins bi-weekly meetings by live stream, all included in the same open, two-way communication and annual off-sites last 3 or 4 days at a time – something most organisations would balk at.
The success of these organisations starts with a clear organisational purpose and quality insight into the types of people that will find meaning in fulfilling that purpose. The culture of the organisation can then be deliberately developed to attract, engage and retain people who will not only excel in doing this, they will enjoy it too.

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