W ithin my role as the Google Creative Evangelist, I’ve had the privilege to meet hundreds of people from over a dozens companies. From public-listed companies to startups that have over millions in funding, one thing they all have in common is the fact that they work within a corporate culture. In the best cases, the embodiment of a corporate culture is felt in the enthusiasm of the people working there. In the worst cases, the culture is interchangeable with any other company.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast. — Peter Drucker
Culture is the key to creativity, employee satisfaction and the continuing existence of a company. It’s the reason people consider working for one company when another company has a similar offer. It’s the reason a person stays at a company longer than a couple of years. And those days are numbered; lifelong employment is disappearing inversely to the number of startups popping-up in Berlin and the rest of the world. It has been estimated that Millennials (the oldest now turning 34) will have an average of seven jobs by the time they turn twenty-six years of age.
So what is culture? Culture is the result of an organization’s purpose, attitude, actions, and beliefs. It starts with the founders of a company and goes through changes with each new successive C-suite leader. To get a better understanding of why culture is the most important factor in any organization I want to share with you three personal stories.
Two Americans in Hamburg
I had just quit my first real job. It was 1996 and I had spent a year as an art director at Springer & Jacoby in Hamburg, Germany working on campaigns such as the launch of the Mercedes-Benz A-class. The Internet was in its infancy with Microsoft having just finished their global $100 million dollar campaign, “Where do you want to go today?”, AOL distributing their version of the Internet via CD-ROMs and Google just beginning as a research project by Larry and Sergey. In other words, this was the perfect time to create something new.
When I co-founded Fork Unstable Media with my two partners (David Linderman and Alex Schönfeld), what we lacked in strategy as a practice we made up in a culture that would become the fuel for our creativity. A culture that would define the work we did, who we hired and ultimately what people talked about when we were not in the room.
Just as children have a lot in common with their parents, a new agency has genetic traits that are rooted in the founder’s previous agency. While David and I both worked at Springer & Jacoby (a culture based on the four Ks: Kultur, Kasse, Kreation und Kunde) we were like foster children brought in from another country, another culture. This came after the realization that our common interest in pushing the possibilities of the Internet were not always in the best interest of a campaign-oriented company. Needless to say, we left shortly after.
At Fork, we believed actions speak louder than words. Therefore, we were constantly developing prototypes and experiments for ourselves that we would sell to clients such as Beiersdorf, Lufthansa and Daimler. It was this mindset of taking the time and effort to try something unproven that made us who we were — an agency with a flat hierarchy and diverse background that would become known for its signature graphic and interaction style. Fork Unstable Media would become an agency with a culture that was so unique that it defined the German agency landscape in the late 90’s.
Jeff, P. Diddy, Larry and Sergey
What do Jeff Bezos, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and the founders of Google have in common? They all attended a Montessori school.
Developed by Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori in 1897, the Montessori approach to education is about self-directed learning — where students follow their interests and decide for themselves what they want to learn. In contrast, a traditional education is focused on getting the answers right with no margin of error. This focus on getting it right with little personal exploration creates an aversion to risk that can be felt in most company cultures today.
In a 2004 interview Larry Page attributed part of Google’s success to his Montessori education. “We both went to Montessori school,” Larry Page said, “and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”
At Google, the company culture is one of self-discovery and learning. One program that can be attributed to a Montessori education is the 20-percent rule. This is where employees spend 20-percent of their time on self-directed projects. Projects such as Gmail and Google Earth came from the 20-percent rule.
With roughly 50,000 employees and growing, Google has one of the most passionate corporate cultures I’ve experienced in a company of this size. It achieves this by having a demanding hiring process (such as checking a potential candidate’s Googleyness), keeping hierarchy to a minimum and holding a weekly all hands meeting with Larry and Sergey in which they keep everyone up-to-date on their current thinking and initiatives. I can’t think of many companies where the founders personally take the time keep everyone up-to-date.
This strong focus on culture is paying off for Google; Fortune Magazine has nominated Google as the number one company to work for over the past three years with growth happening at a record-breaking pace.
As Googlers get accustomed to a workplace that includes breakfast, lunch and the many other benefits that only a successful company can provide, one comes to expect the same of future employers. Whenever I meet an ex-Googler I’m always fascinated by their point-of-view after their time at Google. That said, it’s not easy leaving a place like Google that nurtures its employees who have the ability to work on global challenges.
This year I’ve traveled with my family (wife and two boys) to Stockholm, Tel Aviv, Paris, and New York City. For each trip we booked a private apartment through Airbnb instead of a hotel. In New York City, we rode with Uber more than the local taxis. Alternatives to the establishment are being created at an unprecedented rate with valuations seeing growth like never before. Airbnb alone is valued at $10 billion and its not even seven years old.
All of these companies, and many more, are competing against established corporations for the best people. The next potential colleague has come to the realization that if they decide to work somewhere it better be a place worth spending most of their day. In other words, they are looking for a company with purpose and longevity that is driven by an amazingly great culture. Focus on a culture worth living for and all else will start to fall into place.
Originally published for the Account Planning Group Deutschland in 2014