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What a former WeWork executive learned about company culture

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A group of colleagues talk at a table during a meeting.

Melissa Daimler says company culture is "not this nebulous set of values — it's a very distinct set of behaviors that are then embedded into the daily workings of a company." Grady Reese/Getty Images

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How does one define corporate culture? It might be harder to put into words than you may think. Melissa Daimler, the chief learning officer at Udemy, posed that question to company leaders in her new book “ReCulturing” and got back some … interesting responses.

For example, someone said culture is “the organization’s soul,” while another called it “the leaves on a tree.” These interpretations, while colorful, also signal that there isn’t just one way to talk about corporate culture – which makes it more difficult to change.

Marketplace’s David Brancaccio spoke with Daimler, who is also a former executive at WeWork, Twitter and Adobe. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio:  I feel we have to address the WeWork in the room, which is on your resume. What did your time at WeWork — the famed, for a time notorious, co-working startup — what did it teach you about dealing with corporate culture?

Melissa Daimler: My time at WeWork taught me a lot of things, frankly, that I already knew about culture, but got validated in a very strong way. There were three primary things: One is that organizations are systems. I think there are different pieces that we’re always trying to connect, so it’s important we look at our purpose, and we’re looking at our strategy, and we’re looking at our culture and how those connect and work with each other. I also think that there’s a misnomer about culture being just values on a wall. And it’s more about: how do those values show up? What are those actual behaviors? What would we be doing if we were exemplifying teamwork? What would we be doing if we were doing behaviors consistent with collaboration? And then lastly, I think organizational culture starts and ends with us. So there’s our organizational culture and that system, we also, every person in the company, has a personal culture — so our own values, behaviors, our habits, our practices are important to continue to review and keep strong.

(Courtesy McGraw-Hill)

Brancaccio: We’re going to come back to that idea of focusing on behaviors and what that means; not just listing values in just a sec. But you also mentioned purpose — and so many company leaders focus on this. You have to establish a sense of purpose and everything else follows. From my reading of WeWork from afar, it was a company that had bucket loads of purpose, purpose galore, but you probably found it was missing something else.

Daimler: I agree with you. I think they had a purpose. It was very clear; it was to make a life, not a living, that was shared quite a bit. But one of the main problems was that there was a huge gap between that purpose and what showed up every day. So I think it’s important that companies continue to not just have a purpose and clarify why they exist — which is what a purpose is — but how that then connects to the strategy and the everyday culture, the behaviors that we’re seeing. So I think that’s the big gap that WeWork missed is you can have these beautiful statements, but if they don’t mean anything, and they’re not connected to how we’re working every day, employees see that.

Brancaccio: Human resources does hiring, firing and has a key role, I would hope, in diversity, equity and inclusion. But once the top brass says, ‘we need to deal with this culture issue,’ is HR the place that leads the charge on the cultural transformation?

Daimler: No. I think that is one of the myths of culture that people get wrong. I don’t think it’s HR’s job. It is not a one-off initiative that HR does once. I think it’s everybody’s job. And I think it’s something that is co-created. So it’s not just led from the top, and it’s not just led from the bottom. It’s something that leaders together with employees need to co-create together. And not just once — it needs to be an ongoing process of reviewing how our behaviors; how our practices and processes are showing up in the company as the company evolves.

Melissa Daimler says company culture is “not this nebulous set of values — it’s a very distinct set of behaviors that are then embedded into the daily workings of a company.” (Courtesy Suzanne O’Brien)

Brancaccio: I mean, this whole thing of cultural change has to break through, probably in many organizations, a sense of cynicism. For instance, if you do surveys at companies, often people say, ‘I want to get new training. I want to learn new ideas.’ And then cultural change comes and there’s more learning and in-service training. But what people are really saying often is, ‘I want the learning that allows me to get promoted so I make more money.’ And companies can’t offer that to everybody.

Daimler: This is where I think a lot of companies get culture and learning wrong. I think the very same people that complain about a lack of training or a lack of feedback or lack of consistent promotion processes are the same leaders and companies that haven’t taken the time to define that playbook; to define what those behaviors are that we expect with every employee. And that, to me, is more of what culture is. It’s not this nebulous set of values — it’s a very distinct set of behaviors that are then embedded into the daily workings of a company.

Brancaccio: That’s a big theme I see in your book: is linking it to actual behaviors. You strike me, having read this, as a practical person that wants actual, concrete steps when you’re working on culture. And that’s the behavior part. But what do you actually mean by this? Instead of stating the value — you do state the value — but you talk about some kind of action point?

Daimler: Yeah, one of the reasons I wrote the book is because I have been a practitioner for over 20 years. I think I’ve read every book; every research paper on culture. Culture as a concept has been around for over 70 years, and there’s so many definitions out there around culture — that it’s the personality; its leaves on a tree; it’s the way you make people happy. And there was no real operational definition. And I experienced a real way to design intentionally how will culture can be. So to answer your question, instead of just saying, ‘teamwork is a value,’ teamwork shows up differently at NPR than it does at Twitter than it does at Udemy. And so clarifying one step further to say: What does that look like if we were exemplifying teamwork; if we were acting as a team? Is it clarifying roles before a key project? Is it we do post- and pre-mortems? What are those specific behaviors that we want to see and reinforce and reward across the organization?

Brancaccio: Here’s the ‘how do we get started tomorrow morning’ question: There are people listening right now going, ‘I got to deal with that culture thing that keeps showing up in employee surveys.’ What has to happen first for these things to follow?

Daimler: I think the number one thing to do is to first redefine how you look at culture.  And clarifying with employees that it is more than just a list of values, and it’s more than just a one-time initiative. It is an ongoing set of behaviors. So I would first take a look at, many companies do have a list of values. So taking a look at what those values are, and what they mean to us as a company —each one of those might have two or three behaviors that have a meaning to each of those values. That’s the first step I would do. And then integrating those into processes that we’re already doing: are those behaviors integrated into how we’re hiring; how we’re onboarding; how we’re giving feedback to each other? Those are things that we’re doing already, so why not just make it easier by clarifying what our playbook is at this company?

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