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Powering performance: the steps to cultural and business success

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Published on:23rd May 2023
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Culture is a vital component of business success. No-one knows that better than our Chief People Officer, Pat Caldwell.

Pat knows that although many businesses talk the talk about values, employee engagement and benefits, culture is the thing that helps them to embed these values and ultimately walk the walk. 

Years ago, business culture, particularly in the financial services sector, was distilled to a set of values, which businesses would proudly champion on their websites. Now, culture is recognised for its role in helping businesses to thrive, no more the “fluffy” cousin of HR, culture is a core discipline and something that must be taken seriously.

But in a world where people are splitting their time between home, office and everything in between, how can companies authentically embed a strong culture that allows employees to perform at the highest level possible?

Pat, can you tell me a little about your background and journey to Send?

I call it a career of two halves. The first half was in the Australian mining industry where I had a bunch of different roles – everything from on-site at underground coal mines in remote parts of Australia, through to corporate HR and supply chain roles. It might not sound like it, but it’s a truly unique industry to learn your craft. There can be thousands of employees on a single mine site with decades of complex employee relations.

Many folks spend their whole careers in mining, but I made a move back in 2016 to explore something different and have since been in the tech industry across a number of SaaS companies in the UK and the US.

My jam is joining early-stage startups as their first people or HR hire. Typically, they’ve already experienced strong traction in their customers and revenue, and the eyes of founders and investors turn to the growth curve ahead. What makes the people space so interesting at this stage of growth is that it quickly becomes one of the biggest enablers or disablers of the entire company’s success. Hiring, engagement, performance, communication, progression, leadership… All things when done well can have a profound impact on the success of the business, and when done poorly can be crippling.

In your opinion, what are some of the most important features of a strong, resilient business culture?

There’s no perfect checklist for culture, but I always look out for a hierarchy of indicators when starting with a new company. These factors can provide a powerful indication of the company’s cultural traits:

Values: The values of ‘respect, professionalism and integrity’, are often trotted out by businesses, but they are more licence to operate factors than actual values. What I look for is how the norms and beliefs of the company are articulated and used to drive the business. I know of one company that holds ‘transparency’ as a core value. This is deeply rooted in a belief that team members need to operate as owners of the business, and you won’t achieve ownership without transparency. Values must be trade-offs. You choose to believe in a certain thing at the expense of the alternative.

Operating Rhythm: This is essentially how things get done in a business and captures a lot of traits of strong cultures. Do people communicate with clarity and care? Are people outside of leadership teams involved in decision-making? Are team members empowered to experiment, fail and learn? Do teams operate as teams or just groups of people who all do similar stuff? This rhythm is ultimately how the business operates and there should be congruence with the values.

Leadership Behaviours: All behaviours are important, but leadership behaviours have a disproportionate effect on culture and the experience of others. It’s a hallmark of great cultures when the leaders display behaviours that role model the values of the company. Culture happens whether you like it or not, so strong leadership behaviours make sure the culture evolves in a deliberate way. If resilience is key to the culture, leaders should be demonstrating a growth mindset, valuing continuous learning and creating space for each person in their team to experiment and learn from things that don’t go well. It’s the alignment of what each person experiences from their leaders, to how the company operates and to the company values.

How can a strong, supportive culture drive better business and increase customer retention?

This is ultimately why I get out of bed ready to go on a Monday morning! Nailing a strong culture has a viral effect on every part of the business. It allows you to attract the best talent into the business which, if you’re growing, is vital to tackle increasingly complex challenges. It also allows you create the conditions for which people can do their best work and demonstrate productivity, engagement and innovation. Both contribute to generating revenue and creating an incredible experience for customers. Culture enables the business to perform at the highest possible level.

Send is a fully remote business, as are many since the pandemic.  How much harder is it to foster a good people-focused culture across disparate locations and what is Send doing to achieve this?

This is quite topical at the moment, and it feels like there’s some form of debate every day about the merits of remote, hybrid and in-person businesses. I’ve worked in all three arrangements and while they all have pros and cons, ultimately, each business is different.

Our team is based across all corners of the UK as well as in the US, Canada, India and Poland. I don’t think being remote makes it any harder to build connections and foster our culture (let’s not pretend it was ever easy to do this in-person before the pandemic!), but it requires a more structured approach to connections and interactions that might otherwise happen more spontaneously in an office environment.

We’re currently building out our onboarding process, this is a critical moment in a team member’s experience, and where Send’s culture needs to come through strongly. Our plan is to structure a series of both synchronous and asynchronous onboarding items that balance the need for interaction and relationships, with a strong self-service and ownership mindset to learning. What that means for a new starter is a chance to meet someone from every team and learn more about them and the work they do, supplemented with asynchronous recordings and learning resources that people can work through at their own pace and in their own way.

We also find meaningful reasons to bring people together in-person despite being a remote-first business. We’ve recently had our US team visit the UK to meet both other team members and customers in person and strengthen those relationships. The way we look at remote-first is that we put as many of the building blocks of relationships and our culture in place remotely, and then use irregular in-person events and catch-ups to add some glue to those building blocks.

Send is scaling up, and has just brought you in as its CPO, what advice would you give to other young businesses looking to get the right culture embedded at an early stage?

A few things come to mind:

  • Define what makes you ‘you’ in the most specific way you can, and then have it front and centre in everything – recruitment, onboarding, recognition, promotions, performance conversations, leadership behaviours etc.
  • Don’t try to tackle everything in the people space all at once. It’s a recipe for great plans and poor (and slow) execution. Pick one or two areas of your people infrastructure to focus on first, get it to 80% right and get it live.
  • The entire people and culture space in scaleups is a largely iterative process. Build for the stage you’re at with a lens for the next 6-12 months (beware of being too premature) and get comfortable iterating constantly as you grow. In a previous company we had 4 reward frameworks in 5 years as we had to keep iterating and redesigning for an increasingly complex company.

If you’d like to connect with Pat, you can find him on LinkedIn here.

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