I have been with Sistema.bio for a year and half as the Chief of Staff, a role in which I lead as well in People Operations and Culture globally. When I joined, Sistema.bio had already about 180 employees spread over 5 countries, and obviously the culture was already in place. It has been said again and again, but you don’t create a culture. Your culture is based on the people you have, the behaviors and rituals they display and share. At best, you manage your culture into a strength for the company: being able to recruit and retain talent, creating a positive environment in which employees thrive and perform. Therefore I have focused my efforts on managing our culture: refining it, doubling down on what was really us and positive, and turning it into a strength for us at Sistema.bio.
“Culture is a group phenomenon. It cannot exist solely within a single person, nor is it simply the average of individual characteristics. It resides in shared behaviors, values, and assumptions and is most commonly experienced through the norms and expectations of a group—that is, the unwritten rules.” – HBS,
Here is a little summary of basic steps to manage your company culture. It will get you started on building an actionable culture that becomes an asset for the organization.
- Understand your company culture
The culture is already there the moment you have people: how they interact with each other, what is accepted and not, how you treat your clients or your suppliers. Sistema.bio already had a set of values, but our employees were giving us the feedback that they did not fully grasp them, that they were too conceptual. So in my case I started there. The leadership team got together to write down what were common values and concepts that really illustrated who we are in the workplace. We ended up with a list of 10-15 values that we felt were specific to Sistema.bio and .
Start with building your awareness about your company culture; define what the shared values and behaviors are. This is your starting point!
- Make sure you define clear values and not a set of words that no one understands
This is quite important. I feel that many companies write big words on the wall that are hard to understand. Don’t be this company: make sure that your values are clear. Abstract concepts don’t lead to clear relatable values. Make your values concise, clear and understable, and use simple words.
Here is an example of one of our values: “We work hard because farmers work hard.” We know we work hard and we know why, it is to the point and the team gets it.
- Don’t stop at your values: add a set of behaviors that illustrate them and create a common framework
At Sistema.bio, we spent some time clarifying the behaviors that corresponded to our values. Your set of behaviors create a common understanding about what you mean with each value. It translates values into clear things people can and cannot do.
Let me take an example. One of our values is “we are honest and direct because we care.” We indeed are a team that communicates very directly with each other, with frequent and open feedback. Defining behaviors is defining what we mean or its opposite:
- I take feedback as a gift to improve,
- I do not use intermediaries to give feedback on my behalf,
- HR and my manager are here to help me to prepare my feedback but will not give it instead of me,
- I think carefully of my wording when I give feedback and always provide context,
- It is not ok to yell at colleagues,
- Feedback should not come only from your manager.
- Match values and behaviors with company rituals
As an ongoing effort, we keep defining rituals that really make our culture something that lives to always reinforce it. In our case, I took each and every value and asked myself: what would be a great way to live and encourage this value? Let me give you an example. Our 6th value is that “we grow by learning and sharing”. We feel that we are a relatively young team at Sistema.bio. But one thing we have in common is that we are hungry to learn and are always up to find mentors, take classes, and share what we learn. To keep living this value, we created a few ritual events: learning lunches in the Mexico office, or a global team event called “Do you know my process” in which we share a process or project we have crafted for a while and want other people to learn directly from.
- Now it’s time to implement: hire and fire for culture
Now remember, culture is not something you decide on. It is based on the people you have and the behaviors and rituals they have exposed and shared since the beginning. As a final note and crucial part, you need to have the right people that fit into your organization culture: who you hire and fire is critical.
On the hiring front at Sistema.bio, we set a clear interview process for new employees as the first step of any recruitment, and done directly by the People department. We took our values and created a set of situational questions to measure culture fit, which can lead to a veto before we start the recruitment process. We want to be sure about who comes in to keep on nurturing our culture. Here is an example. The question “How would you define high performance in your team or in your work?” directly mirrors our value “We expect high performance of each other because we are solving humanity’s most important problems.”
On the letting people go front, note that who you keep in the team is entirely as important. Yes, it is hard to let people go when they perform. Yet each person that goes against your culture is exponentially toxic, can crush rapidely your efforts, and jeopardizes the culture you have spent time building. A final example here. Our first value is “We are environmental activists”. Would we keep a very strong finance manager who is transforming the business, but systematically throws plastic bottles out of the window from his car?
At Sistema.bio, we just started refining and managing our culture, but we have already made systemic shifts that are bringing positive changes: our culture is tangible and clear, we measure values in our performance review process and spend time celebrating them actively on our Instagram team account, in our bimonthly internal newsletter, giving value trophies to hubs at end of the year parties and more!
If you want to talk more about it, don’t hesitate to reach out. Culture is a topic I’m truly passionate about and I’d love to share ideas and learn from what you’ve done similarly or differently!