Henry Talks Episode 2 - Company culture with Leila Ljungberg

Vedran Ismaili on

In this episode of the podcast we talk about culture. We touch upon important questions as why company culture is important, when you as a founder should start thinking about it and how growth may impact it as you move beyond the early startup days.

This is a part of an ongoing series of interviews about building a truly people-first company. If you enjoy the podcast don’t miss out on the rest of the series. Make sure to subscribe either on Soundcloud or Itunes

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Vedran: Welcome to the third episode of Henry talks and today I have the amazing Leila Ljungberg with me. Leila is a People and Culture director at Snow Software! Leila has always been someone who has been pushing the HR field into new frontiers and I am excited to have her on the podcast today.

Leila: Thank you and thanks for that amazing presentation.

Vedran: I wanted this episode to focus on company culture. Culture is a topic I find fascinating and something a lot of founders and young companies think about. So, to kick us off, I wanted to ask you, how do you define company culture. What is company culture according to you?

Leila: I usually talk about the picture of an iceberg. So, you can imagine that your company culture is an iceberg. You will only see a small piece of the iceberg, basically the peak of it. This tiny piece is also what most other people in your organisation see. It's the way people greet each other, how they communicate and how do they act towards each other. That is something you can see and almost touch. These are the things people will talk about and say, "well at Hi Henry there's a super friendly environment, people are always welcoming, etc"

There's a lot of things going on beneath the surface that you won't see, things that will affect what the tip of the iceberg looks like. This is influenced by how engaged people are, if they believe in the mission of the company and more. It's also important to understand that everybody who joins your company also has their own "backpack", things they will bring to your company and which will also affect culture. But to simplify it a bit, culture is the small things, how we greet each other and so on. People often forget that it is actually the small things that shape company culture.

Vedran: I think that's is a really interesting thing you mention, the "backpack". One thing I find fascinating is how to create alignment, to make sure everyone has a shared picture of the direction of the company and its culture. I think both of us buy very much into the idea of company culture and why is essential but why do you think company culture is important?

Leila: I think there are several aspects to why it is essential. Nowadays there is an expectation from the workforce that you are actually working with these questions. And regardless if you want to work with your company culture or not it will sooner or later emerge by itself. So, you can be a part of shaping it and using it as a force for propelling your business forward or handle the issues it will create. If you don't actively shape your culture the chances are that the direction it takes won’t be the direction you want. Once the culture has set, it's really hard to reverse engineer or undo a culture. You can't! That's why I think people should think about it early on.

Vedran: I talk to a lot of founders especially about culture and often we end up on the topic of when one should start focusing on one's company culture. In my opinion, you should begin to think about company culture very early on, because as you say, once it has established itself it is hard to change it. But I think it's important to be aware of it and to spend some time early on thinking about where one wants to be and keep that in mind already in the recruitment process.

Leila: Yes, culture is as we talked about earlier on, the small things. So if you want a friendly environment well then you say hello in the mornings and you look for that in new hires. It's about these small rituals that you need to establish as a company early on. And then of course as you grow there will be changes, and you will need to adapt since you won't be able to have the same way of communicating as a 100-people company, as you had as a 10 people company.

Vedran: But you work at what I would define as a big company and it's evident that culture is really important. But how do you work with company culture when you are so big? Especially since there are multiple locations, languages and more.

Leila: I think it's there are so many parts to culture and the employee journey offers a great possibility to make sure everyone is fully emerged in our culture. For me it's about finding those situations where you can create rituals and activities that will elevate our culture and highlights it's importance. It's also essential to start early on in the recruitment. You can start even earlier in the employer branding work to be honest. You actually want to position your company in a certain way, in a way where it should be visible already from your website what you are about. Everything should connect to your company's culture and vision-

Vedran: When talking about company cultures one also realizes that a lot of strong company cultures also are very excluding. The one that comes to mind is Apple. They were the pirates of Silicon Valley and built a very strong mission with a rebellious culture where one clear enemy existed, IBM.

Leila: Yeah and from a psychological standpoint it's a smart thing to do. There's something within the psychological field that is called in-group phenomena. What you do is that you create a strong feeling of “we” and that is usually done by having a clear threat. This is commonly used in war and in all kinds of different social contexts. It doesn't even have to be a real enemy, it doesn't need to be other people, it could be the market or something else. But to create the strong “we” feeling you will naturally also exclude a lot of people.

Leila: I was just reading a piece on self-organizing companies which is another way of building an organizational culture. And I've heard about a gaming company that succeeded with this transformation. But when I talked to the person that was in charge of the transformation I had to ask him how many people actually quit during the process... Well, it turns out that over half of the company chose to leave. Because that's the thing, self-organizing companies demand a lot from their employees and that wasn't everyone’s cup of tea, so a lot of people left. This is another example of where the company culture is excluding.

Coming back to your point above, building a rebellious culture where you have an enemy isn't a bad idea especially when it comes to recruitment. Being a challenger is always exciting. But the challenge is that as you grow, you will need to change accordingly and so will your culture. You will become the incumbent sooner or later if you grow big enough.

Vedran: You made the reference to growing up and how a company almost goes through the same stages as a child becoming an adult. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Leila: I think the reference to a kid growing up is pretty good. As a kid you are unique, but as you grow up and become a teenager you start to compare yourself with your peers, this also happens companies. Suddenly it isn't too bad to become like your peers, to become like IBM since they have acceptance from the market. As teenagers, we want to normalize ourselves. We just want to be as similar to our peers as possible. And when we grow up as adults you also realize ok, I'm just the same as everybody else. The unique thing you had as a kid is a bit lost, and that is what most companies also realise when they become big enough and then they try to find the thing that made them unique again.

Making this transition from a kid to a teenager is something I have seen CEO's struggle with. As a founder, you really need to focus your efforts where they will help your company grow. If you try to control, each aspect of it things won’t turn out good.

Vedran: You should always strive to make yourself redundant to one extent or other. It's not about who's at the top of the pyramid. As a founder, there are more important tasks to focus on precisely as you say.

Leila: As a founder, you will hold a strong position as a symbolic leader but where most CEO's fail is when it comes to scaling their symbolic leadership. And I'm talking about symbolic leadership because you as a founder become a part of these rituals in the company, people will try to replicate your behaviors because they see you as a good role model. What you want to do is to scale this symbolic leadership so everybody else can carry that weight alongside you.

Vedran: On another topic when it comes to culture. Culture-fit has been a very trendy thing and something a lot of companies talk about. What are your thoughts about that?

Leila: I find the word lacking width. We use the word culture-add instead. We don't just want to duplicate the people we have, we also want a team that is diverse and can contribute with different perspectives. So, diversity comes into play and there are so many different aspects of diversity. Often we forget about cognitive diversity, that is diversity of mind. You also want to make sure that the team is diverse regarding personalities, so you don't notice that you only have a team of drivers. So, I think we should talk much more about culture-add rather than only focusing on culture-fit.

Vedran: Thanks for a great episode Leila, it has been wonderful having you.

Leila: Thank you!

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Vedran Ismaili

Co-founder & CEO - chatbot builder, optimist and rookie skateboarder.