Steven Bartlett: Why culture is key to thriving teams
Find out all the insights from a recent YuLife event.
Why You Should Care
Culture is the reason why businesses fail.
That's the view of entrepreneur Steven Bartlett.
Here are his top tips to build the right culture to thrive.
“By definition, the word company is a group of people”, declared Steven Bartlett.
Bartlett, who, among other things, is a serial entrepreneur and host of award-winning podcast ‘Diary of a CEO’, was speaking about how to build a winning team at an event hosted by insuretech company YuLife.
“I genuinely believe that the job of a CEO, of a founder, is to assemble the best group of people” and then build the right culture for them to thrive.
There needs to be an “obsessive focus on culture and people”. Culture is essentially “the environmental factors that determine how a group of people behave”, and if you get that wrong, it can destroy the business.
This was a major lesson Bartlett learnt early in his career, and it is something that he really focuses on when he acquires or invests in businesses.
This obsession with culture must be continuous, but it must be seriously prioritized for the first ten people – remember, each of them represents 10% of your company culture, and they will then be responsible for scaling the business in line with that culture.
Ultimately, “It’s really hard to unpick or undo” cultural issues once you’ve scaled the business – so you need to get it right from the beginning.
Talking specifically about the culture he has built in his many businesses, the one word that comes to mind for Bartlett is kindness.
“If I were to write a list of priorities in the order of what I was willing to compromise, you definitely wouldn’t compromise kindness”.
Ultimately, on an individual level, being unkind is not a good trait. People remember kindness, they also remember who was unpleasant and rude to them – and if you want to thrive in your working and personal life, you want to be in the first camp.
Knowing when to let people go
Of course, Bartlett’s call for obsession over culture doesn’t mean that everyone in the organization should to be exactly the same – diversity is essential – but they all need to have the same, core cultural values to drive business success.
However, a great way to figure out if you have the right people in your organization is to think about whether if everyone was like a certain person, would that raise or lower the bar at the organization? Would it make the company better or worse?
“Those people that raise the bar the most” are the ones you want to promote into leadership – this is “because leaders are the most contagious in terms of their cultural values”.
Those that lower the bar either need training, other interventions to figure out the problem, or it may turn out there is need to let them go. “Skills, knowledge can be taught”, but culture and values are more innate.
The issue is that one person’s cultural mismatch (or “violation”) catches on – and not in a good way. Bartlett has actually experienced situations where leadership’s procrastination around letting someone go who wasn’t the right fit almost killed the company.
It can have a huge impact on employee’s productivity, motivation and, ultimately, the businesses performance.
It is important to keep doing this as companies evolve. Bartlett is clear that there may be some people who were essential to the business in its early phases, but are no longer the right fit as the company matures.
Bartlett applauded and called out Ben Francis from Gymshark and Huel’s Julian Heard for taking ego out of the question, and stepping aside when they didn’t have the right skills and experience for certain parts of a business’ growth.
But the idea of firing people who were with the business through its early stages, begged a question from YuLife’s co-founder Josh Hart: Is this disloyal from companies?
Bartlett responded, if the person isn’t the right fit for the company, then that organization is also not right for the person and their career.
The key is good communication, including constructive feedback, and addressing problems quickly. “It’s okay to be wrong with hiring…but the speed in which I rectify and have the difficult conversation is the most important thing”.
Wellbeing and the human need for connection
The conversation between Yulife’s Hart and Bartlett then moved towards wellbeing and employers’ responsibilities to look after their employees.
He is clear that too many organizations see work as transactional and “getting the to-do list done”, but the organizations that will get the best of their people, and retain them, are those that think beyond pay.
Instead, they will look at things like communities at work, opt-out mental health care to reduce stigma around therapy and empowering managers to lead by example.
There will always be sub-cultures in your organization, but employers can manage these by encouraging all managers to look after themselves and have open conversations about taking holiday and going to therapy etc.
Therefore, it is no surprise that Bartlett does not see remote work as the future. “There’s a couple of bets I am sure on. And one of those bets is that human DNA is not going to change. We’re all going to still need connection and community” . The workplace is a crucial part of that, particularly for younger people who are still building their networks and social circles.
“Although its tempting to do what a lot of people have done and say work wherever you want, whenever you want, I see that as a real risk. It creates ambiguity – I think the worst thing in a company culture is when people don’t know what the expectation is”, shared Bartlett.
It isn’t about demanding people come in and connect – that suggests a lack of trust – instead it is about explaining why it is essential that employees do connect and collaborate in person.
Bartlett exclusively tells UNLEASH: “The best company cultures I’ve observed are when people see each other in real life, at least sometimes. They have the greatest sense of belonging, they are most attached to the mission, they feel supported”.
He cites Robert Waldinger’s research that proves that people live longer when they have close supporting relationships – “I think we’re losing sight of that.”
Are you ready to get back to connection and kindness in order to thrive in the current and future of work?
The world’s HR conference and expo is back! Don’t miss out on UNLEASH World in Paris this October.
Allie is an experienced business journalist. She is UNLEASH's talent and recruitment lead.
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