It is a familiar scenario. A long-established business has a strong heritage but needs to push itself commercially and bring on large numbers of new recruits in order to stay ahead of the market. So how can you make the leap to becoming a commercial heavyweight without threatening the internal culture that brought you success in the first place?
This is the situation that footwear business, Dr. Martens, faced in 2014 when its HR Director approached me to help on one of the most ambitious and extensive internal culture and leadership projects that I’ve ever been involved in.
If they could capture on paper what made them different, they would have a stronger foundation for creating the ideal commercial and cultural conditions for success, influencing all kinds of business decisions, from recruitment to staff wellbeing, team management, branding and more. As well as identifying its ambitions, strengths and beliefs, Dr. Martens also wanted to strengthen the best bits of its culture and energise its leaders, but without losing its independent spirit.
And so began a three-year long journey to capture what makes the business special, inspire employees to celebrate and uphold its culture and develop strong leaders who play to the company’s strengths. Reflecting back, there are several key learnings from the work which I believe can be applied to any organisation that wishes to gain greater insights into what makes it great and how to build on this foundation.
1. Clearly define success at the start
Before the project began, we developed a clear vision of what success would be. This involved interviewing employees and leaders from the business about the challenges they faced, understanding how our work could support them and what they believed was possible in the future.
2. Don’t do what the textbook says
A textbook approach to company culture would have jarred with Dr. Martens’ independent spirit and culture. We developed our own blueprint for success, with creative ideas that celebrated its maverick spirit. For instance, we captured Dr. Martens’ fundamental beliefs literally “on the record”, imprinting them on a seven-inch vinyl, complete with artwork, sleeve design and sleeve notes. Dr. Martens has a strong cultural association with music fans so this felt like the perfect fit but for other companies an entirely different approach might be needed.
3. Work from data and insights, not assumptions
Use data from employee surveys, focus groups, employee anecdotes and feedback from each stage of the journey to guide you towards the next step. We tested all messages and content in small-scale pilots first. This was a steady, iterative three-year transformation and the results have been much more effective than rushing into any quick-fix company-wide communications that could easily miss the mark.
Whatever happens, you don’t want a cultural project to feel like an HR initiative; it needs to be owned by employees and the leaders themselves to ensure it reflects who they are. We sourced volunteers, ideas and feedback from across the organisation to support the work. A team from all levels and departments, known as the Culture Vultures, were brought on board to give the work longevity. The team regularly meets to discuss and implement new ideas for how to “live the the brand”. This includes areas such as wellbeing, personal growth and company events and communications.
5. Go where the energy is
Bringing volunteers on board at the earliest stage is a powerful way to build the foundation for cultural change. The project will feed off their energy, ideas and enthusiasm, attracting more supporters and building momentum to create something authentic and meaningful. We relied on Dr. Martens employees to drive every aspect of the work.
6. Inspire the company’s leaders
A large part of understanding the internal culture and preserving or evolving it comes down to leadership. Support leaders to understand their individual purpose and values and relate these back to the company’s beliefs and style. Leaders will then be more able to inspire their teams with the same beliefs and ambitions and eventually everyone in the company is at their most authentic and becomes energised and aligned.
7. Build to last
Like the famous DM boots, it is vital that any internal culture work is built to last. To make sure of this, individuals and teams need to be empowered to take ownership for different aspects of progress. For instance, the cultural work at Dr. Martens has supported the recruitment process, formalising the desired characteristics and attitudes of candidates and giving new recruits greater insights into the company they are joining.
If you’d like to know about the full process of gathering insights, defining beliefs and ambitions, as well as how to educate, energise and inspire employees at every level, take a look at this case study, which outlines the three-year journey Dr. Martens has taken.