Company culture… It’s a tricky topic because so many people throw around vague statements about it, leaving others clueless. So, with this in mind, I wanted to dig into the details around the subject with Gabriel Goldberg.
The entrepreneur, who worked at Google in Belgium back when it had about 3,000 employees, then went on to set up two successful businesses – Semetis and Hakacia – both of which have excellent company cultures at their core. Nowadays, he helps leaders scale up by helping them get similar results in their own organisations.
When Gabriel sold Semetis to Omnicom, the plan was to integrate it within the US media group over a three-year time period.
“We thought about it from a theoretical point of view, but the execution ended up being the whole opposite,” says Gabriel.
It turned out that Omnicom was an extremely traditional firm where the company culture was completely different from the one he had worked hard to put into place over the previous decade.
“And as difficult as it was – it was probably the most challenging task of my career – it was also the most insightful and had the steepest learning curve,” Gabriel explains. “It’s where I decided that my next challenge would certainly be in helping leaders shape their business – their transformation – through culture.
Read on to discover a summary of the entrepreneur’s thoughts, FAQ style, on how changing a company’s culture can make it future-proof.
It’s a company’s collective behaviours and the traditions within it that are beyond the day-to-day work, says Gabriel. Basically, why do people wake up in the morning and get motivated to work?
“And that’s the crucial part, because I started working at companies where the aim was to maximise shareholders,” says Gabriel. “That, for me, is not culture. It’s a very old-school, 20th-century kind of capitalism and doesn’t make any sense. And for people who need a goal, the question is: what are the collective elements of waking up every morning and going to work?”
It all comes down to the initial motivation that pushed a leader to launch a business, according to Gabriel. Perhaps, after creating the company, he or she went through a guidebook saying that company culture is key. They probably saw the Simon Sinek Golden Circle model, which explains how renowned leaders like Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King Jr inspired, rather than used manipulation, to motivate people.
But going through an exercise and forcing yourself to have a belief or conviction in creating a strong company culture without actually having it is totally wrong, says Gabriel. “So I wouldn’t say that company culture is for everyone. Even staff – they sometimes just see the job as a job without caring about company culture.”
When leaders aren’t sincere and authentic, says Gabriel. “You can spot that instantly. They will fail over time, not necessarily in their business, but in implementing a strong, lasting corporate culture that attracts staff who want to contribute beyond the classical monetary element.”
Transformation cannot happen if there’s not a backing and an open-mindedness of the top-down leadership, he explains.
“I’ve seen leaders claiming that they’re open for transformation and starting transformation projects, but deep down in their heart hating it and being control freaks and not wishing to let go because they’re afraid of where they will land. They think they might lose their jobs because of the young people or the machines taking over – all the stereotypes that you hear when you just switch on a television or radio station. And it just fails.”
First of all, it’s important to identify an organisation’s culture, says Gabriel:
It’s also important to establish the objectives of the transformation, says Gabriel. What do employees say about your current company culture? What do they like and dislike?
Go through a whole audit phase to examine all the elements, the entrepreneur suggests. Then collectively establish core values with key staff in workshops where people have the ability to express themselves.
Next, create a company mission, because this summarises the common goals and motivations that will impact the culture. Then make sure it’s all reviewed and followed up. The collective approach is to set an example and provide feedback, but also to allow your team to iterate and have a strong say in any changes decided upon.
Even when people leave the business or switch between departments, there are some core elements that last, says Gabriel. “For example, long-term vision. The relationship between colleagues. The workplace involvement. Elements like transparency.”
Transparency is a particularly strong value, according to Gabriel, who gives the example of a client of his. While people often move within teams at this organisation, at a company level, transparency is an essential part of the culture. In its Slack, for example, it has an Ask Me Anything channel. It’s also extremely transparent with customers and suppliers.
“It’s kind of a part of a religion,” says Gabriel. “That’s the way they are because that’s the way that’s important for them. And then this fires other people up.”
Very much so, according to Gabriel. “You’ve probably heard it said many times that a homogeneous group is probably faster, but a heterogeneous group will be slower but go further. I believe in that strongly,” he says.
It’s the same with the accessibility of leaders, Gabriel points out. “Those that are visible, caring, provide comfortable workplaces and value human beings contribute to a culture that makes work not just a job but a purpose.”
“An example of this was when I worked at Google. The core mission of the company, which by the way is still the same, was to organise the world’s information and make it accessible to everyone. That’s the first company I was so happy to work at because I felt like my personal core values matched with its core values.”
At Google, explains Gabriel, people genuinely woke up in the morning to contribute to this long-standing mission. And that’s how strong company culture can be.
“There’s a great book called Work Rules, written by the HR director at Google,” says Gabriel. “It’s a very practical manual because it also has sections on how you recruit, how staff evolve and how to organise meetings.”
It’s when you start to see independent initiatives from the staff that go beyond their day-to-day; when groups of people are making things happen and launching new projects – new ways of doing and thinking, Gabriel explains.
“I sincerely believe that it also comes from a certain open-mindness, a wish to give back or a wish to let people have responsibility and grow,” he says. “When people like to talk about their jobs – that’s something to be proud of.”
He points to the people working in certain segments that are groundbreaking, like pharmaceutical labs developing new medicine or vaccines.
“For example, I read about Moderna as a company – that’s just a crazy story. If they didn’t have a strong company culture internally, they would not be able to deliver what they have,” says Gabriel.
And there you have it: a serial entrepreneur’s thoughts on how to crack the company culture code.
Find out more on my podcast episode with Gabriel.
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