How We Created Our Own Culture Code

Aira started here:

TLDR: we’ve published our internal culture code online. Below is the background on what it is and how it came about, as well as some insight into the thinking behind our culture.

Matt and I were sitting in a bar at the Aria casino in Vegas and decided to start a company. We talked about a bunch of things that day, one of which was culture and what kind of workplace we wanted to build. We knew that it was going to be an important part of building an agency and would be a way that we could differentiate ourselves against countless other agencies.

We talked about a simple idea – that we wanted to build a company that we’d want to work for. If we did that, then we would hopefully be on the right track. 

As Aira grew, this idea stuck and guided us pretty well. Internal feedback, as well as comments like these from our team, showed us that we were doing OK:

 

Generally, the team were consistently happy at work too. These are the average team happiness scores (marked out of ten) for 2019:

These scores, comments and the culture we have happened without ever defining it in concrete terms. We never told anyone what culture actually meant or what we wanted it to be. I wrote about it at the start of 2019 and as you can see, didn’t have an exact idea of what it meant at Aira. All we had was that idea that started in the Aria casino – build somewhere where we’d like to work. 

We’re not perfect by any means, but I genuinely think that the culture we’ve been able to build is special and something that will remain central to our growth.

But it won’t last forever if we don’t look after it. 

Why?

Culture happens

The thing is, culture happens whether you like it or not. You can’t stop it from developing because culture happens as a result of the skills and behaviours of your team. If your team talk to clients or customers in a way that doesn’t show respect or professionalism, this will form part of your culture. If your team accept low quality work from each other, this will become part of your culture. 

Essentially, whatever behaviour takes place will set the bar for future behaviour. If that bar is low, it will continue to be low.

As HubSpot points out in their culture deck:

You can shape it and of course, try to make it into what you want it to be. If you do nothing, it will happen anyway, whether you like it or not.

This isn’t necessarily a problem though. We didn’t do anything actively on our culture for a long time and we think we built something pretty good. 

But problems can arise.

What got you here won’t get you there

Hearing this quote (from this book) last year triggered the original thought process that eventually led to the culture code that we’re sharing today. It made me realise that even though we’d done a good job of building our culture in a non-formal way for the first five years of Aira, it was unlikely that the same approach would work for the next five years.

If we remember that culture happens as a result of skills and behaviours, then take into account that as you add more people to your culture, there are more skills and behaviours at play, you can see how culture develops very quickly. Adding more people can be a great thing in so many ways, but it’s important to ground your culture so that these people add value to it and develop it – but do not damage it. 

To do this, it has to be super clear what it is, what you expect of everyone who is part of it and most importantly, empowers them to protect it.

So this is what we’ve done. We created our culture code.

How we created our culture code

Even though our culture code has come together over the last twelve months or so, the contents and elements of it have been developed at different points of the last five years. That’s kind of the point though, our culture has developed pretty naturally as a result of the skills and behaviours of our team – along with various ideas and initiatives we’ve pushed out. 

Where we started – mission, vision, values

One of the places we started was to attempt to work out our mission, vision and values.

Let me cut to the punchline here – we failed.

We tried. The leadership team sat in a room for a few hours and tried to answer the question of what our mission, vision and values are. But it turns out that it’s actually quite hard! We got there eventually, in our own way, but it happened over the course of many months and lots of small conversations – not one big session where the answers presented themselves. We’ll come back to this shortly.

The truth is, defining our culture wasn’t a step by step process where everything neatly came together. It took many months of thinking and work to bring it all together. It’s only now, looking back on it, can we deconstruct the process and try to help others follow some steps.

Start with three questions

A framework we’ve used to bring it all together is three simple questions:

  1. What do we need from our team?
  2. What do our team need from us?
  3. What behaviours make Aira who we are?

 

Thinking about the answers to these questions was pretty enlightening, as well as allowing us to see what we already had and what was missing.

For example, we know that we need exceptional performance from our team so that we can deliver great results for clients. Once we knew this, the question then became what do we need to do in order to support that exceptional performance? This ties directly in with point 2 above in regard to what our team need from us. This is a great way of focusing on actionable things that you can do in order to give your team what they need in order to do what you need them to.

In this case, we looked at things such as training budgets for individuals, external trainers and on the job support from managers.

Ideally, what you say you need from your team and what your team need from you should balance each other out – that’s the give and take nature of running a business. Another example of this is the idea that you need to be profitable, so the other side of this for your team is that you need them to be commercially aware of how they affect your profit.

When it comes to behaviours and which ones make your company what it is, that’s a whole other area to think about. 

And it took us a while to figure it out.

Working out mission, vision and values

As mentioned earlier, we really struggled with this. 

We eventually worked on them by reframing them as two things:

  1. Why does Aira exist?
  2. What behaviours make Aira what it is?

 

Why we exist

This is essentially a combination of mission and vision – two things which, for some reason, I could never get straight in my head and remember which one was which! We eventually decided on three reasons why we exist which you can find in our culture code – but, how did they actually come about?

The truth – a LOT of trial and error. We just started to write stuff down, share ideas and see what resonated. In the back of my mind, I knew that we needed a balance between our goal of building a great culture and place to work against the need to get great results for clients. We couldn’t have one without the other. Sure we could try to build an agency which produces great results for clients, but if the team didn’t enjoy their jobs for the majority of the time, we probably wouldn’t either. 

What behaviours do we value?

I really struggled coming up with values as well. They just felt, like, such bullshit.

Bear with me.

The idea of coming up with a bunch of words and telling our team that they were our values didn’t sit well with me. If I was going to get up in front of our company and list our values, I should at least believe in them myself, right?

Let’s take these as an example:

  • Initiative
  • Ambition
  • Fun
  • Passion
  • Integrity
  • Drive

I mean, who would not want to act in such a way that is in line with all of these? That’s kind of the problem though, everyone would like to think they do these things and it doesn’t necessarily motivate certain types of behaviours within your company. 

There are also different interpretations of these words, let’s take “fun” as an example. To one person, their idea of fun at work could be coming in, putting their headphones on and getting a huge strategy document done and then head home at the end of the day. For others, fun could be doing some work, having a catch-up around the kitchen table, popping out for a coffee with a client and then doing a bit of work from home in the afternoon. Both are getting their jobs done and having fun, but the behaviours themselves are very different. Neither are wrong. But the word fun doesn’t give a lot of direction as to what you expect from someone. 

The whole point of coming up with a set of company values is to drive behaviours and help support the culture that you’re trying to nurture. For me at least, an abstract list of words doesn’t really do that. 

It’s also worth mentioning that we asked our team to tell us what words they’d use to describe Aira and their colleagues. This helped a little but again, didn’t really give us what we needed in terms of driving behaviours. 

Instead, we stopped trying to think of words and looked inwards at our team and tried to pull out the behaviours that already exist. This doesn’t just happen. It took a while for us to do this which I think is where we were tripping up previously – we couldn’t just walk into a room and walk back out with mission, vision and values nailed.

Not even walking into a room several times would have done it. 

After a while, we identified six behaviours which, we believe, makes Aira what it is. These are a combination of behaviours which have developed naturally over the years and others which we have actively pushed. 

For example, feedback has always been an important component of the culture since day 1, so we’ve pushed this wherever we could. Whereas not settling and always wanting more is something that we’ve noticed in the people we’ve hired and something that makes us better all the time, so we’ve embraced it and made it concrete as something we value. 

Show what you do for your team

Over the years, we’ve put various things in place to try and build a great company and most importantly, develop the careers of our team as much as possible. Some of this is intangible whilst other stuff is more process-driven. 

When bringing our culture code together, we looked at all of the things we do for the team, tidied it all up and pulled it all together. This included things such as:

  • Providing career progression paths so that someone can see the next step up in their career
  • Providing expectations for each and every role so that someone can see what we want them to be doing in their role
  • Carrying out regular 360 reviews which relate directly to these expectations so that someone can get feedback on how they’re doing
  • Looking after someone’s health and wellbeing with our Sanctus sessions

We wanted to include all of this in our culture code for a couple of reasons:

  • We want to be accountable for doing these things and making sure they happen
  • If anyone is considering applying for a role at Aira, they can see what we offer in terms of their career progression
  • It gives some insight into how we do things

When it comes to the culture code, this was actually one of the easier parts to do because we already have the bits and pieces in place, it was just a case of bringing them all together. 

To summarise

As you may have been able to tell, this wasn’t a simple, clean process. There were lots of moving parts and thinking over the course of many months. If I look back, there was definitely a moment of clarity and breakthrough when I saw all of these moving parts as connected.

For me, I drew this sketch which helped massively:

Essentially, all of the things under Concrete, we already had. We also already had PDPs (personal development plans). These were all in place but not really tied together very well. 

When I started to list out what we want from our team and what we give in return, it was far easier to string everything together into what ended up forming a large part of our culture code. 

Because of this, if you’re looking to get going but aren’t sure where to start, I’d go with two questions:

  1. What do you want from your team?
  2. What do you promise them in return for doing this?

 

I’d love to hear your feedback and see how you get on with this, so feel free to tweet me or message me on LinkedIn if you want to talk more. 

Further resources

If you’d like to read more about culture and culture codes, here are a few resources that helped me:

 

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