Culture club #1: in this new series, BOOST&Co gives an insight into every aspect of organisational culture — and the impact it has on your company and you
“What is it that you do?” No, BOOST&Co doesn’t train its own acrobatics troupe or keep a lizard in the kitchen: rather, that’s the usual reaction to the news that the private-debt lender considers its company culture, overseen by an in-house organisational psychologist, to be one of its key assets.
Not many companies can boast this type of resource – but not many businesses maintain such a sharp focus on their culture, despite plentiful evidence that it can help individuals to flourish as well as driving firms to succeed.
“Many of us aren’t aware that the culture of our organisations influences our working lives profoundly, for better or worse,” says BOOST&Co’s organisational psychologist, Heather Bingham, who was brought in by partners Lance Mysyrowicz and Sonia Powar to capture the company’s culture.
“Mapping this culture by identifying shared characteristics, attitudes and behaviours was key to the next stage of growth for BOOST&Co,” Bingham says. “Lance and Sonia recognised that their next step – to expand the team significantly – had enormous potential to disrupt their business. Helping to ward off that threat was the start of my work for the firm.”
What every fast-growing business needs
The process of formalising BOOST&Co’s culture began soon after Bingham joined the company. She noticed that several positive characteristics were shared by Mysyrowicz and Powar – but why were the partners so keen to embed this culture from the start?
“Our team comprised a mix of different personalities, but each person possessed qualities that meant we could instinctively describe them as being ‘BOOST’. We wanted to write down the culture so that we could identify exactly what those qualities were. We knew that this would help us to recruit new staff with the best possible chance of fitting into the team,” Mysyrowicz says.
The partners were also ready to embark on a major expansion, having decided to multiply the firm’s number of employees by five. “We knew we were going to hire a lot of staff and that this could destabilise our business. If we didn’t write down our culture first, we might have hired people who were too different and too disparate. Once the damage had been done, it would have been way too hard to fix,” Mysyrowicz says.
A formal description of the company’s culture helped to ensure that consistency was maintained. “In order to succeed, it was vital that we translated abstract concepts into tangible personality traits,” Bingham says.
How leaders set the tone
Even before she began to capture BOOST&Co’s culture, Bingham knew that the partners’ personalities would play a key role. “The behaviour of leaders of SMEs, especially partnerships, is the key influence on organisational culture. Any problems in the relationship between Lance and Sonia would have been thrown into the spotlight by my work,” she says.
“Lance, whom I have known for a long time, exhibits energy and is very ‘in the moment’, ready to drive things through quickly to a conclusion and then move on,” she says. “I had not met Sonia before, but I saw instantly that she is more measured, and will not be rushed into anything until she understands all the details and has obtained answers to every question she might raise.”
Although Mysyrowicz and Powar are “very different characters”, this contrast “enriches the company’s culture, rather than causing conflict”, the organisational psychologist found.
Expert’s tools of the trade
Having established the core of BOOST&Co’s culture through the partners’ characters, Bingham deepened her assessment by creating a cultural model inspired by Edgar Schein’s work on organisational culture. The retired professor, formerly of the MIT Sloan School of Management in the US, created a tool for diagnosing and understanding organisational cultures that is “incredibly helpful when working in fast-growing small and medium-sized firms”, Bingham says.
“Although he developed this tool in the 1980s, arguably the ultimate decade of artifice – think greed, ostentatious consumption and shoulder pads – Schein and his team gave us a way to cut through pretence to the truth of how organisations function,” she says.
Bingham uses Schein’s model to celebrate good practice and expose any issues. This involves interviewing as many employees as possible and asking each person the same set of questions, including: “Who has your back at work?” and “What contributions do your leaders make to your team’s success?”
Responses are sorted into artefacts and behaviours (anything tangible or openly spoken of), espoused values (generally the company’s stated values) and basic assumptions (deeply embedded, taken-for-granted behaviours). “Positives and negatives then leap from the page,” Bingham says, “relating to both the culture and how it links to leadership behaviour.”
Distilling the essence of BOOST&Co
In evaluating the responses, Bingham was surprised. “For the first time, I didn’t need to use Schein’s model. I found that the answers to my questions exposed an extraordinary level of unanimity and coherence,” she says. “My work on the company’s culture map crystallised into seven words that represent everyone at BOOST&Co: authentic, brave, curious, self-motivated, smart, interested and interesting.”
These seven tenets – to be discussed in future articles in the Culture Club series – remain at the heart of all the people-processes at BOOST&Co, from recruitment to performance management. “Every decision relating to our team is informed by our cultural model,” Bingham says. “We celebrate our organisational culture and use our knowledge of it every day.”