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Firsthand Lessons On How To Create A Culture By Design, Not By Default

By: Joanne McKinney

Building an effective culture is a key responsibility of business leaders and an integral part of a company’s success -- a company and its culture are one and the same. There is a justified expectation among the workforce that all companies must focus on culture. It has become a strong attractor -- or detractor -- for potential employees and talent.

Looking back on my own workplaces, I realize culture existed more by default than by design. There was little foresight in how culture was shaped. It was created over time and more organically. As with most creative businesses, I’ve worked in offices equipped with pool tables and creative workspaces, which in the past may have been a legitimate attempt to create a healthy work environment but today falls short. Culture today is more than just games or beer in the office.

While most leaders fully understand this, moving it from theory to practice is complex and something I have been consciously working on since becoming CEO at Burns Group. We’re not there yet -- it takes more than a few months to hone a strong culture -- but here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Think Like A Startup 

I’ve worked with many startup founders and observed how, as they considered the life cycle of their business, they didn’t just design a product or service, but also their company and its culture.

When culture is given the same consideration as other aspects of a business, it’s a game-changer. This isn’t always easy, particularly as you weigh the importance of business success versus cultural success and have to make tough choices on where to invest time and money. But addressing culture from the onset elevates its importance and impact.

2. Be Strategic And Put Purpose First

Creating a culture by design starts with a broader articulation of the company you want to be. Our starting point was to articulate our values and our golden circle (the why, how and what of our business). We created these through an inclusive process. We found that having diverse people and levels collaborate on company values ensures they're relevant to all.

Both of these strategic exercises were critical to setting measurable benchmarks for our design phase. Our newly minted purpose and values are communicated to the team on an ongoing basis and serve as the building blocks.

3. Communicate 

Culture depends on mutual understanding of the company's mission and vision. For instance, we shared a detailed business plan with the entire team and selected change ambassadors from every level within the company to supercharge its progression and adoption throughout the organization.

When determining who those ambassadors would be, we included people who were well-networked in every department and immersed in our offerings -- people who could activate our vision in their daily work and bring others along with them. These ambassadors were encouraged to speak up in praise of things that worked and scrutinize those that didn't.

4. Show Up And Live Your Values

It’s not enough to just define company values. Those values must also be lived throughout the organization, and this starts at the top. For our company, a growth mindset -- supporting personal development and allowing passions to inspire and evolve day jobs -- was a core value. So, as the CEO, I took a week away from work to take a class at Columbia Business School, filling a knowledge gap.

Demonstrating that learning and growth happen at every stage of your career is important to model for employees. We want everyone to safely share where they could use more training and receive company support both in time and investment in their education.

5. Invest In Culture

One of the best decisions we made this year was to appoint a people engagement coordinator and give her a healthy working budget. We asked her to work closely with her co-workers to design year-round employee engagement beyond client-based collaboration. She came back with a fantastic plan that covered cultural events large and small, bringing to life what makes us unique as a company.

Having a real plan and a budget in place can make a world of difference. The frequency and creativity of gatherings grew significantly -- we made fascinators for the royal wedding and competed in our own world cup. We still have happy hours, a volleyball team and holiday parties, but with a plan and a targeted investment, we have lived our culture in many new ways.

6. Celebrate Process, Not Just Outcome

A culture that works does not just focus on great outcomes. It’s easy to focus on big wins and use those “end moments” as a reason to come together -- we all love a great celebration. But on top of that, we look closely at how we collaborate along the way and praise examples of where we do it best. Shout-outs for a successful process and supportive people remind us all that day-to-day “winning” can be a big contributor to happiness at work.

7. Think Critically About Day 1

How new employees enter the workplace is a critical flashpoint for company culture. We spend so much time interviewing and selecting the best people, but historically less attention is paid to how new employees are assimilated into the company culture.

We took a fresh look at our onboarding process and created a Day 1 welcoming program that strongly reflects our values and culture. The days that follow are equally important, but we found that focusing on how you show up as a company on the first day of work can birth some fresh and important thinking.

I have been on both sides of Burns Group’s culture, formerly as a participant and now as a designer. We are living the messy and exhilarating transition of our company and are committed to making culture premeditated and important. Culture is a never-ending pursuit that requires constant nurturing and critical self-evaluation. We’re still learning, but are strong believers that the most important aspect of a business is its people, and their needs are the ones that matter most.

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