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CTOs Anonymous #3: Why Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

28/06/2019 By Simon Bird

What really motivates an engineering team to succeed? Should the CTO maketh the developer in his own image? What do you do with your values after you've written them on your wall? 

The third in La Fosse's ‘CTOs Anonymous’ roundtable series was a discussion of all things culture, with leading C-suite tech executives from businesses old and new, across a variety of sectors and sizes. The discussion was facilitated by Jonathan Midgley, from the trainline.com.

Here are a few of the key insights which I took away.

Culture is hard to define

We had several different definitions of culture in our group. I think the most exact was:

"Culture is defined by the values and behaviours expressed in your workplace."

But I also thought others were apt such as: 

"Culture also equates to the worst behaviours we tolerate at work."

Both of these are true, and much of our discussion focused on how to build a positive company culture, and what difficulties our group had come up against.

Purpose: A Business's "North Star"

It might seem that every business today claims to be "purpose-driven". This isn't just a millennial marketing ploy - it's generally accepted that people work best when they can understand what the business is working for, and how they contribute personally towards that goal. High-profile examples range from Unilever's 'making sustainable living commonplace' to Google's desire and Virgin Active's desire to 'make everybody a bit healthier.'

However, the question of who defines your "North Star" is complex. The impetus needs to come from the top, but there also needs to be a continual discussion with the organisation to make sure everyone is engaged and knows what these values mean in the day to day. (At La Fosse, we're found on the principle of care, and every year at our Kick Off, we break off into groups and talk through what this means to us in terms of candidates, clients, and each other.) 

The potential gains are big, because purpose begets passion, which begets better work. Having a clearly-communicated purpose also means people make better decisions without having to ask those above them all the time. If they're confident they understand what the organisation is trying to achieve, they don't need to push the decision to someone who does. 

Openness: The Death of "Work Me"

Expectations of an office working environment have shifted dramatically in the last twenty years. Separation between "weekend me" and "work me" is increasingly being eroded, and nowhere is this clearer than in tech (where you stand out quite a bit if you're wearing a suit rather than a t-shirt.)

Several of our attendees were keen to point out the cultural value of this change. Firstly, you can't create diverse environments while "work me" is still alive, because if people don't feel as though they can be themselves, you're falling at the first hurdle. A culture can't be so rigid that it can't stretch to allow new ways of thinking, or you'll get stuck in a rut.

Secondly, being yourself means being more open, which means you are more likely to give and receive honest feedback, a crucial part of a good culture. 

There should be mechanisms in place to facilitate feedback to management (360s, OfficeVibe, Townhalls, 121’s) – and these changes need to be visibly acted upon. But there should also be a culture where staff feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback from each other, as long as it’s in line with the four qualities which make it valuable: consensual, actionable, specific and kind.

Trust:  "If you treat people like adults, they'll act like adults."

One of Steve Job's oft-quoted lines is: “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” 

Put another way - micromanaging is a death sentence to culture. An environment where any decision needs eight ticks next to it before being actioned stifles innovation. And it's boring. 

If you're empowering people to be successful, you're also giving them the freedom to fail. But, as the greenest junior dev knows, you learn a lot more from failing than from winning. 

There's a temptation that, like Coldplay, once you've found a winning formula, you just keep churning out more of the same. But, unlike Coldplay, the same won't be a recipe for success. One attendee cited an innovation programme which mandated an 80% failure rate – 'because if you're being any more successful than that, you're not being innovative enough.' 

Hiring: Stumbling Blocks and Bootcamps

The "culture-fit" question is a stumbling block for many hiring managers. You want someone who will fit in, but you don't want this to mean you're just hiring yourself over and over again. In fact, assessing for culture and values, if done right, actually has the potential to increase diversity in your organisation, with the knock on effect of driving  high performance.

These conversations are particularly relevant today. Companies like Apple, Google and Netflix for example, are rolling back their educational requirements for entry. Businesses are increasingly accepting career "switchers" from tech bootcamps and running apprenticeship schemes alongside hiring the traditional comp-sci grads. 

Assessing all candidates equally requires objectivity, and good notes. Ultimately, if you spend an hour and a half pair-programming with someone, you're probably going to leave the room liking them. This means you need to codify your assessment criteria and your way of recording the interview to avoid making a "gut feel" judgement. Either making sure you take down everything they say verbatim rather than making assessments in the moment, or, if possible, having a detached third party doing so. 

I'm Simon, coordinator of the CTOs Anonymous Roundtable series and head of La Fosse's Digital Contract Recruitment Team. If you'd like to learn more about the meetup, or how we advise on recruitment and hiring processes here at La Fosse, please get in touch at simon.bird@lafosse.com or call on 07817 833 916.
 

 
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