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  • Writer's pictureLucas Bergmans

Don't f**k up the culture (part 1)

Updated: Jan 4

How many times have you heard the expression “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”? What this means is that the best thinking and the best laid plans can either be hugely boosted by your culture or they can be derailed by it.

Defining, establishing and maintaining the right culture for a rapidly growing scale-up comes with its own challenges. How do you keep what’s great about your business when you’re 30 people in one office through to when you’re 300 people or even 3,000 people in multiple locations and even multiple countries?

I spoke to the legendary Alan Cairns, previously Chief People Officer at MoneySuperMarket and highly experienced leader in scale-ups including MOO, iTech and now Go Cardless, about why culture is so important and how to establish and maintain a strong culture as you scale up your business.


Alan, thank you very much for joining. Why don't you start by giving us an overview of your career highlights to date?

Absolutely. I spent 8 glorious years at MoneySuperMarket from 2007 including some pretty amazing journeys. We saved customers something like £10billion, which is just ludicrous to think. When I joined the business, it had just floated at a share price of £1.70 (an £870 million valuation) and immediately dipped massively during the 2007/8 recession to something like 33p. So, it needed some serious work, and therefore it turned into more like a turnaround than anything else. And that share price of 33p by the year I left was something like a peak of £3.80. So, we returned a lot to shareholders and helped a lot of employees, which I'm particularly proud of.  It was things like the company share scheme and save-as-you-earn.

I went on from MoneySupermarket to MOO, which I loved. Richard, the founder, was super creative and I learned an awful lot from him, in particular about values, being a purposeful business, and how to embed creativity in a business. I then wanted to see whether I could genuinely cut it in a super small business. And so I joined a start-up systematic hedge fund. I’d been in a fintech but I'd never worked in a hedge fund before, so it was a massive learning curve. This was a 12-person business, with a single investor. And in broad terms, it was a multi £billion investment. While I was doing that, I also worked for five days a month for Octopus Ventures where I was a Venture Partner.

I loved my time equally in both of those. There was a kind of symbiotic relationship between the two: you could sandbox one idea in one business and take it across to the other and vice versa. So, it was mutually beneficial to both. With Octopus, you learned the inside workings of a VC which was really interesting. And also, you're helping out anything from lifestyle one-person businesses (which was a first for me) all the way through to pre-IPO and sometimes post-IPO style businesses.

I thought I would be doing those roles for the next five to 10 years but I had a reach out from Harley Kisberg, the founder of iTech Media. He said to me ‘This could be a life-changing opportunity for you because it's the first time that you'll pull together almost everything you've ever done before.’ So, a strong people-centricity from being Chief People Officer in various businesses, with something that I’d done one or two times before, which was the more operational angle. So, this role as COO was pretty special. A uniquely placed business: it was bootstrapped and profitable from day one. You have the ability to do some pretty incredible things when you've no external shareholders saying ‘Oh, you can't do this’ or ‘These are our expectations of the business.’ It was just about alignment with the founders. At that time, we developed the purpose of the business, the vision, and the values, scaled massively from 60 to something like 10x that over that period, and grew the business profitably. And I learned so much through that. I was running functions I'd never run before: like Engineering, Finance. I'm super, super proud of my legacy at iTech because we (and it was definitely a collective effort) took it from what was like the feel of a village where you have 60 people in a business, through to a town where people don't know each other quite as well, all the way to a city where you've got A-grade talent doing the absolute best work all working together, and making something really, really special. And its culture is probably like no other, it's pretty incredible. And for me, it was definitely a highlight because I could bring everything together in that one business.

 "You can have a great culture, but the easiest thing in the world is to not do any work on it and with it, and eventually, it will migrate somewhere else. Probably in a direction that you don't want it to."

Fantastic. You talked about the culture just there with your previous role at iTech. Clearly, it was very important in other roles such as Chief People Officer at MoneySupermarket and roles after that, and particularly in businesses going through a lot of change, whether that's a turnaround or rapid growth. How do you think about preserving and retaining a culture but keeping it fresh and relevant to a business as it grows at that pace?

I think it was Peter Thiel that literally wrote on a single piece of paper: “Don't fuck up the culture”. I think that's the watch-out. You can have a great culture, but the easiest thing in the world is to not do any work on it and with it, and eventually, it will migrate somewhere else. Probably in a direction that you don't want it to. So, I think it is something that a lot of companies get wrong. It's something you do have to work on every day. And not just when you’re small and you say ‘Right, we've done our culture’. It's never done. It's something you have to absolutely work at.

So let me talk about some things I've seen that helped massively. The first thing is to write it down. I don't mean, ‘I'll make a jazzy poster and put it on the wall. There you go. I've written our culture.’ Write it down. What it means. What does your culture mean? What does it not mean? What are the things that are unsaid? What are the standards that you're setting? What's the expectation of people? Try and codify as much of that as possible. Share it. And as we both know, having worked in these kinds of businesses before, you can't share something once. The common adage is that you have to say something seven times before it actually really resonates with everybody. Sometimes that will mean explaining it further. Sometimes it will mean ‘Oh, I wasn't there on the first day. I didn't realise that’ or sometimes people just haven't paid attention. So, repeating it and making sure that it is consistent is really important

Take feedback from people. Is this part of our culture? I saw someone do this, is this part of our culture? I saw this happen when you did the presentation. Is that part of our culture? Get the feedback from people so that you can course correct it as well. It's never a straight line, culture. I think it's a kind of very wiggly line that you're trying your very best to keep, but it's definitely never straight

Make it part of every single conversation. Now, if you're hiring people, talk about culture in hiring. If you're building any kind of company presentation, talk about culture in that presentation. Talk about your values, talk about purpose. Talk about how you recognise people. Here are the superstars. Look at what this person did and reference that to your values, to your culture. Embed it in rituals and create things that are about your culture. Every culture is different but make rituals that are unique to your business, they make you less copyable because they're unique. They make your business very, very special. You can accelerate and supercharge rituals, in particular celebrations, and make celebrations something that actually celebrate your culture.

Use recognition throughout - the idea of spot bonuses, thank you cards, that kind of thing - but make that about culture. Make every event about culture. If you do a summer party, a Christmas party, or a conference of any kind, culture has to play an important part in that.

And the other thing I've seen and learned is that scaling culture is really hard because there are potholes all along that road. Any single new hire can derail that, so you have to be really, really careful about who you're hiring. It's critical to assess people as they're coming in. Think about every promotion you make. Am I promoting someone that is congruent and shows up with our culture and our values and our purpose? And even every exit. This person is no longer showing up or doesn't show up against our purpose, our vision, and our values, and therefore they'll be very happy somewhere else but they're just not the right person for us. And think about everyone that you hire or promote.

There are three things that people can do to your culture. There are people that can dilute it. I won't quote any one company but if you think of Big Tech, you hire someone from Big Tech, and they could dilute your culture by saying we used to do this at (insert generic, Big Tech company here). So, they could start to pull you in some different way, especially if you're hiring a few people from the same business. You can also have people that are what I call maintainers. So, you've established the norms, you've got your totems, you've got your celebrations, your rituals and everything else and they read it, they absorb it, and they maintain it. You're telling me what I need to do to show up against it. That's what I'm going to do. But what I look for in particular are people that augment your culture, people that actually come with ideas from different businesses. But they're not here to wholesale just import those, what they'll do is say “In my last business, we did x, but in this business, I'd either recommend not doing that, or actually I'd recommend doing it like this because I think that would be an even better build.” And the more people you hire like that, you're building your culture. It’s changing but in a positive way. So, it really is worth thinking about in any organisation: how many people dilute your culture, how many maintain it and how many are actually augmenting it? And you need as many as possible on the augmentation side.

"It's not just your People function’s role to do things on culture. It’s everyone's responsibility to make sure that you role model."

Thanks, Alan. What I'd love to hear next is what your top three tips would be for any businesses scaling up that really want to make sure they get their culture right.

The first one is to write it down and systematise and embed your culture in everything that you do. It's not just your People function’s role to do things on culture. It’s everyone's responsibility to make sure that you role model. This is part of our culture that we do this. If you say we are a very direct business or we believe in radical candour or we have a culture of feedback, you've got to walk the talk. You've got to do that every single day. And you can't say you want something and then you don't have it. You have to walk it. So, write it down, build all the rituals, the processes, the tools, the events that are going to augment that and systematise it.


The second one is to hire and onboard exceptionally well. Using your values and your purpose in hiring. Everyone has their own personal values, and they're not necessarily going to be the same. It'd be pretty remarkable if they were but they're not going to be exactly the same as your company’s. So what you need to see in people is, can you show up to these values and make sure that they're not completely out of kilter with their own personal values?

But then the other thing is, can they and will they be passionate about what we do? And is this something that is important to them and can they talk passionately about it every single day? If you’re working in a business that's focused on football, you hire people that are genuinely interested in football.

And then, onboarding. If you think of it with a finance hat on. Every new hire that you make takes an amount of time before they're delivering revenue and growth for your business. Anything you can do to shorten that time is going to be net positive for the business and for the individual. Make onboarding something that is so ‘red carpet’, that you accelerate that process for people. Share your business model, share the hero stories: here are three people in our business that have done really well and this is what they did so that people can see and they can go and talk to those people and they can find out more. Talk about your products and really deep dive into your products. Look for bugs, look for things that could be better. This bit is unclear. This part of the website doesn't make sense to me. Did you know that this link is broken? Really get people into the product. Get them to meet people in every single function. All the way through my time at iTech, I used to spend three hours roughly every fortnight onboarding new people and it was probably one of the highlights of the entire week because you're meeting fresh-faced new people who have come brimming with new ideas from different companies. And what you're trying to do is explain as much as humanly possible about how the company works. How they do things. The values, the purpose, the vision. Moonshots that you've got. How the metrics work. What do each of the metrics mean and which are the most important ones? How are they all linked together in an OKR framework. You have a lot to put into that simple one or two-week period but thinking about onboarding and making that an absolute process for you is so, so important.

And then the third one is regularly checking what I call the cultural heartbeat of your business. For that, you need qual and quant. You can use employee surveys but you want sentiment as well. You want what are people actually saying. And it's one thing to write something down. It's another one to say it. Sometimes there's a dissonance between those ‘keyboard warriors’ and everyone else. What you want is what's on people's minds and finding a way that they can tell you what's on their minds. There are some great tools: Peakon, Culture Amp, etc, that can do things like that. But also augment that with having regular conversations. As a leader, if you're having a one-on-one, once a week, with your team, and you're understanding how they're doing against their objectives and their OKRs, you're talking about how the business is doing. You talk about their personal lives and how they're doing and how they're finding it. Ask about working from home. How's that working for you? Time in the office, all that kind of thing. And what feedback do they have for you? Every single time you have that conversation, you'll probably learn something new. And it's about taking that feedback and rolling through.

And then a bonus one (why not?) is that the more rituals, totems, and unique nomenclature and behavioural examples that you've got, and that you create, the more you're giving people clear expectations on how they show up to it. If you just say our culture is work, work as fast as you possibly can and break things you're not really explaining your culture. What does working as fast as you can mean? What does breaking things mean? What if I keep breaking things? Capturing all of that is massive for you.

"Hiring people who don't augment your culture can change your culture by accident."

And could you think of a mistake that people should avoid?

I mentioned it before, but hiring people who don't augment your culture can change your culture by accident. I've seen it in different businesses. I've seen corporate edicts like ‘we are now this. We're now doing that.’ That changes your culture. Treating people as numbers changes your culture. Over-heavy processes change your culture. What I call ‘parent-child’ rules, policies, and processes, change your culture. All of those are potholes on the road to establishing the right culture. And so many businesses end up going down one of those kinds of routes.

Great tips on culture, thanks Alan. It’s such an important thing to get right and needs a huge amount of focus and energy!

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