Oliver Black on Why Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast

Man's Corner


oliver-black-1 (1)I always liked the line, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It’s true too. If you can get the culture right then anything is possible. The other truism is that company culture “has to come from the top”.

We’ve been on an interesting journey so far. We started our business 12+ years ago with one colleague between my brother and I, and we now have closer to 500. The culture is just as important today as it was when we were at the beginning, but it’s hard!

When we started out, it was the typical small business type environment, lots of young people all full of energy – how I imagine a number of internet start-up businesses to be…just with less money. We lived the business. Everyone knew everything and was fully involved in moving the company forward, steering it in the right direction of travel. It was exciting too; people had the freedom to challenge the status quo, take real initiative, and have true autonomy over their role – there was no real hierarchy, everyone got involved.

As we’ve grown, we’ve really had to think about how we could try and keep the same spirit and principles alive. There are real jobs to be done, and people can’t be involved in everything. We have multiple sites, and we’re no-longer a start-up, but that doesn’t – and shouldn’t – mean the culture is any different. But how do you do it when you have teams in multiple sites and lots of people in an office?

The businesses I admire are the large ones that find a way to maintain their start-up culture. Culture comes top of their agenda, and they are really clear on who they want and, equally, who they don’t. Think Netflix and Zappos. Netflix’s company culture involves sayings like: “genius jerks are not for us”. But, I repeat, it isn’t easy!

Luckily, I would say we had 3 things –not things really, but people – that really influenced us. Our father and his brother had run their own successful business and, in terms of living their brand and leading by example, this was a pretty good subliminal learning environment to grow up in. The second was my friend James Timpson and his father John, who run Timpson Shoe Repairs. It’s an amazing business and their people are the absolute key. If you haven’t read any of John’s books, you are missing out. Thirdly, a Canadian guy called Donald Cooper, whom we met via my father. He now lectures on something called ‘Human Marketing’, was famous for his retail business and was well ahead of his time.

We certainly don’t have a secret formula – it’s always work in progress – but if I had 5 tips to give that we think have worked for us, they’d be the following:

Be honest & have no secrets: We try and tell everyone everything, we have various newsletters and we share things like turnover, profit, numbers, occupancy etc. We break this down by departments or sites, and the people running those departments/sites contribute to it. In other words, the good, the bad and our direction of travel are all shared. We have monthly huddles where all the office get together for an hour and each area gives an update.

Small things really matter: We celebrate the wins but we also celebrate the small things. Everyone gets a birthday card that’s signed and personal to them, we send muffins, chocolates and hand written notes. First days, last days, exam passes. Pizza day once a month. Christmas hampers to the sites. My father and his brother used to give everyone a frozen chicken at Xmas, going to every site to hand them out. The small things really do matter.

Colleagues, not employees: It’s an important distinction. We don’t have a head office, it’s called ‘Central Support’. Our organisational structure is upside down, and we show it that way. Parents, children and carers come first. My job is to support our Operational Heads, and their job is to support their team, and so on.

No Drongos: We haven’t quite nailed the recruitment process yet, but the teams get involved in who’s joining them, and have a say so/input (Pret do this bit really well). Teamwork is key. In our childcare sites, our handbook has a pictorial piece showing the people we want (Ms Keen, Mr Happy and Miss Ambitious etc.) and, as importantly, the people we don’t want (Ms Grumpy, Mr Rude and Miss Lazy etc.).

Results and not presenteeism: This is sometimes a thorny issue. With our remote sites, the teams clearly need to be there. But we are open about people working flexibly. In today’s challenging environment, we need to make our lives and work knit together, and not work in conflict. Flexibility is key. I won’t go on about this, but in my view, it’s about focusing on results and not presenteeism. If you treat colleagues as adults, talk about expectations and results, and don’t micromanage their time or how/when they work. You will be amazed by the results.

As we grow, some of these things get harder to do and we will have to work harder at it. What used to be done via osmosis, now needs more process to make sure it is maintained, and stays at the core of who we are and how we operate. Our culture is fundamental to what we do and, by any metric you want to pick, getting the culture right works.

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