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My biggest managerial challenge? Building a great company culture

Alex Robbio

May 21st, 2018

Last week I sat down for an interview with Vanessa Fuhrmans of the Wall Street Journal. During the interview, she asked me one question which stuck in my mind- what is my biggest managerial challenge? There was no doubt in my mind as to my response: building a great company culture.

But I’ve been thinking about that question over the past couple of days, and I want to add some more nuance to the response. As Belatrix has been growing at a rapid tick over the past few years (and this year on course for nearly 40%), this challenge has shifted to how to scale our culture. How do we maintain the young, fresh, fun, innovative culture that we had when we were just 50 or 100 employees? Belatrix now has over 600 employees, we’re aiming to be over 1,000 employees by 2020, so this is a question which I spend a lot of time thinking about.

My biggest managerial challenge? Building (and scaling) a great company culture

Belatrix’s culture is one of the aspects I’m most proud of. If you look at our Facebook or Instagram pages for instance, you can get an initial sense of the blend of a fun, but high-performing environment that we’ve built – which is also reflected in the recognition we’ve gained as a Great Place To Work. But this doesn’t happen by accident. Over the years we’ve taken concrete steps to achieve this, and I want to share some of them here.

I have been guided in my thinking by the book “Primed to Perform”, and we’ve made it required reading for Belatrix’s management team. The authors write about the science behind great workplace cultures. I believe this perspective has a lot of value – because innovative, high-performing cultures don’t just happen by chance. One of the ideas that we’ve found effective for example, is to create a “culture team” for each office, what the book calls “Fire Watchers”. This is the idea that certain people are key to maintaining the original fire of the culture, while also helping to evolve it when needed. This has helped us maintain our culture, even as we’ve grown rapidly.

The total motivation model

We´ve also taken into consideration a broad motivation model called TOMO (Total Motivation). Motivation is closely related to culture – as the book states: “great cultures fuel total motivation, and total motivation fuels performance”. The TOMO model argues there are six key motivating factors, that exist within a spectrum. I want to outline them here – some of these are positive and some are negative, and some are “direct”, and some less direct.

Direct motives are those motivations that are directly connected to work itself:

  • Play. Loving what you do because you love doing it. It relates to the design of the task itself and its alignment with your preferences and skills.
  • Purpose. You value what the task accomplishes for you or others. It is important that it aligns with your values.
  • Potential. You may not love the task, the results are not immediate, but you value the ultimate purpose. For example, you eat healthy food because at some point it will help you run faster; or you help clean a homeless shelter – perhaps not a nice activity in and of itself, but you can see the long term benefits.

Indirect (negative) motivations are those that are less connected to work:

  • Emotional pressure. Based on manipulation, or even self judgement. There is a fear of failure.
  • Economic pressure. To win a reward or to avoid losing something. This kills adaptive performance, as people act less creatively under economic pressure.
  • Inertia. It’s what you’ve always done, so you just keep doing it.

Great cultures create play, purpose, and potential. They minimize emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. It’s one reason why I’ve never understood why so many technology companies use so-called “stack rankings” to compare employees – this creates huge amounts of emotional and economic pressure on individuals, creating exactly the type of culture that I don’t want to see at Belatrix. I also don’t understand zero-sum competitions, for example limited bonus pools, so that if I help my peer to do a better job, I basically ensure that I getfont-weight: 400; text-align: justify;”>But what does this total motivation look like in practice? I see it every day at Belatrix, and also at events such as hackatown time, brainstorming and discussing ways to best solve a problem for a client, writing a blog post about the latest tech developments, giving a talk about blockchain during their lunch break, or building a prototype of a software product which could help individuals with disabilities. These are actions that you can’t encourage solely with financial rewards. Individuals do it, because it’s part of the culture, and because they enjoy it. It’s the play, purpose, and potential, that I mentioned earlier.

Agile development provides an effective approach for total motivation

Agile software development is a core part of how we work at Belatrix, and the methodology aligns well with this motivational model. This is because Agile and Scrum focus on creating self-managing teams – for example, individuals don’t wait for work to be assigned to them by their manager, but take ownership of the project and the results. There is a focus on constantly learning and improving skills and capabilities. Again, self-organizing teams don’t just happen by chance, but rather require specific actions to help them. Are managers (and clients) familiar and experienced with helping teams self-manage. Are they trusted to make decisions? Do they have the space to fail? Does your organization have the right infrastructure, and incentives in place?

The role of culture in creating great software

We work in an industry characterized by highly-qualified engineers creating complex software products. The software we create, whether for a bank, or a retail organization, is a core part of their business, and is often highly complex. It requires in-depth knowledge both of the technology as well as the business implications. For individuals to come up with creative solutions to the most pressing business challenges of our clients, we need to build a culture that fosters and promotes such an approach. We want people to be flexible in their work, to solve these complex challenges. Psychologists typically refer to this as “adaptive performance” – individuals wanting to learn new skills as required, and adapting to different environments as required. The more direct motivating factors that there are (play, purpose, and potential), the more it fosters adaptive performance – and of course it is the company’s culture that provides the backbone of this.

Your culture can be a competitive differentiator

I believe Belatrix’s culture is a core part of our competitive advantage. It’s how we stand out in a crowded market of high-tech companies – but it’s also something which is really hard to imitate. It’s one of the reasons why I spend so much time thinking about how to maintain it, and how best to scale it. So I’d love to hear your comments about creating and scaling company cultures. As someone who studied psychology at university, I’m particularly passionate about the topic and am always looking for new examples and best practices.

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