Author Talks: Don’t skip the ‘soft stuff’

No more Ping-Pong breaks or office happy hours? No matter. Melissa Daimler shares how workplace culture can still thrive without an office.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Katherine Tam chats with Melissa Daimler, chief learning officer of Udemy, about her new book, ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture to Connect with Strategy and Purpose for Lasting Success (McGraw-Hill, May 2022). Drawing from decades of experience at companies including Twitter and Adobe, Daimler says culture—or how colleagues interact with one another—is just as important as purpose and strategy, and it’s crucial when it comes to worker engagement. An edited version of the conversation follows.  

Why did you write this book?

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ReCulturing is about how to design intentional cultures with your organization in a hybrid workplace. I wrote the book because I’ve been in tech for over 20 years, and for about that amount of time, I have been studying, participating in, and driving culture change. I kept reading books, research articles, and everything you could possibly find out there about culture, and I continued to get frustrated about how culture was regarded as a very nebulous concept.

There are so many definitions about what culture means, from engagement, to an organization’s personality, to what happens when the boss isn’t around. It got tiring and frustrating because I knew that culture was much more concrete than that. There was a way to design and operationalize culture that hadn’t been done more broadly, and I have experience doing it at several companies. So I wrote this book as a way to give people a blueprint for how to intentionally design and integrate culture in their organizations.

I have always believed that culture is a really important component of any organization. I’ve had the good fortune of working at some really great companies—iconic and fast-growing companies, like Adobe and Twitter. I had a stint at WeWork, and it taught me even more so the value of a healthy culture. Often, we think culture is this soft thing on the side that HR gets to at some point, that it’s a one-time exercise where you list a number of values and you’re done—you throw them up on a wall, you throw them up on a website, and that’s it.

I believe, and I’ve experienced, that there are several more steps we need to take to have the kind of healthy cultures we see many, many companies have. The point of the book is to go beyond a list of values and identify those behaviors. What are those observable actions that exemplify values?

That’s the first piece. Then, what are the different processes you need to embed those behaviors in? Processes are the things we already do: hiring process, onboarding process, promotion process, feedback. Practices are things that we’re also doing on a daily basis: meetings, communication, how we connect with each other. The book is about this continuous process of integrating those behaviors into your everyday work and acknowledging that it is all part of a system.

Was there anything in the writing, research, or in the response to this book that surprised you?

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It surprised me that organizational culture has been around as a concept for over 70 years, and yet we’re still in this place of defining culture as a very nebulous concept. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book is because I do think there is a way to define an intentional culture.

 

We’re in a different time right now. We’re all trying to write this playbook together, and nobody knows exactly how to navigate this next chapter of our work. How we’ve typically defined culture is by the food we have, the Ping-Pong tables, and the happy hours. Because we don’t go into an office now, people think, “Oh, my God, our culture is gone.” I wanted to make the point that culture is not what happens in an office. Free food and Ping-Pong tables are great, but culture is really how work happens between people.

I wanted to make the point that culture is not what happens in an office. Free food and Ping-Pong tables are great, but culture is really how work happens between people.

My book is about just that: How do we make sure that the focus on culture amplifies even more now with the office being taken away for a couple of years? Those relationships that we create every day, the decisions that we make, the interactions we have—all of that is culture. Culture is happening whether by design or by default, so why not design it intentionally based on how we want our organization to work?

Why has it been difficult to define what workplace culture is?

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One of the things I talk about in the book is this idea of “systems thinking,” which means we need to connect how we’re working with what we’re working on, which is our strategy, and why we’re doing it, which is our purpose. All of those things link together. If we pull one—if the strategy shifts—we need to also look at our culture—our behaviors.

People have thought about culture as this separate thing, but it really is integral to the business. It’s something that needs to be cocreated from the top down and the bottom up, and it needs to be reviewed consistently—maybe not as often as our strategy, but especially at key inflection points, culture needs to be reviewed.

We have such a huge opportunity in front of us, now that the façade of happy hours and Ping-Pong tables has been somewhat taken away. I think those are still there, and I think those are good for creating the kind of connection we want to have with others, but most of us are now working in organizations that have this hybrid workforce. We don’t get to go to an office every day, so I think a first step for leaders in looking at their culture is to take a look at your values and go one step further.

We don’t get to go to an office every day, so I think a first step for leaders in looking at their culture is to take a look at your values and go one step further.

Do that exercise of identifying those behaviors that we want our values to exemplify. For instance, if we have a value of innovation, how would I know we’re being innovative? Would we be prototyping faster? Would we be acknowledging mistakes and learning from them? I think it’s important that you identify that additional set of behaviors that tie to your values. That’s always the first step I recommend for leaders.

Why is it important to find employees who add to or complement a company’s culture rather than being a cultural fit?

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I’m a big believer in diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI], just like culture, being part of the daily work. I’m glad to see that a lot of companies are realizing it’s not just an unconscious-bias training that’s going to get us to be more diverse and inclusive.

DEI is also an ongoing set of actions that we need to be aware of. The cultural add and complement was something that I’ve been thinking about a lot because I think the cultural-fit piece implies that we’re trying to get you to fit into the culture that we already have, versus you bringing a different set of perspectives that still complement who we are and what we’re doing as a company. We can’t continue to grow and be innovative if we don’t have additional perspectives on our team.

I think of cultural fit just like I think of the word assimilation. I’ve always disliked that word as well. So often, when a company is acquiring another company, the word that is used is, “We need to assimilate them into our organization,” versus a word that I think is better, which is integration. How do we take the best of both companies and integrate practices or new ideas to create something completely new, versus having somebody fit or assimilate into what we already have? It’s really important that we’re careful about the words we use—I talk about in the book that language matters—so “complement” and “add” are representative of a more diverse culture.

So often, when a company is acquiring another company, the word that is used is, ‘We need to assimilate them into our organization,’ versus a word that I think is better, which is integration. How do we take the best of both companies and integrate practices or new ideas to create something completely new, versus having somebody fit or assimilate into what we already have?

How does your WeWork experience prove that organizational systems are important and need to keep evolving?

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I can now say that I appreciate my time at WeWork because I learned a lot, primarily that culture is a very important component of an organization. The idea of ensuring that your purpose, your strategy, and your culture continue to connect is the systems perspective.

A lot of us have heard about the WeWork stories and the disconnect from the purpose—I think the last purpose statement that they had was “elevate consciousness”—and it would be really hard to try to map that to a strategy around real estate. It’s important to continue to look at all pieces of a company and ensure that there is a connection to each.

WeWork invested in wave pools at a certain point, and I remember employees saying, “I don’t really understand why we’re investing in wave pools when we’re about co-working spaces and real estate.” I think it’s important that those three pieces continue to map and connect tightly together: purpose, which is the why; strategy, which is the what; and culture, which is the how.

Is it possible to intentionally design a company’s culture?

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We all have the ability to intentionally design our culture. I think now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we intentionally design how we want to work together. Again, culture is something that is happening, so we might as well design it actively and continuously in order for us to continue to evolve and grow as the strategy evolves.

When looking for a job, what are the signs to look for on whether a company is living up to its culture?

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One sign is when a company has a list of values and there’s no mention of those values anywhere else in the company—not in company meetings, nor do the leaders talk about them—they just live on a website. That’s one thing to look out for.

There’s been so much research on the importance of culture. I just read a report that stated 90 percent of employees make sure they research culture before going into an organization. The interview process is very telling. If you have interviewers who identify what the values are and then ask you questions consistent with those behaviors, that’s a sign of a good culture. If your interview process consists of questions about what you’re going to do and is very results-oriented versus about how we work together, I think that’s a sign that the company doesn’t really focus on culture.

The interview process is very telling. If you have interviewers who identify what the values are and then ask you questions consistent with those behaviors, that’s a sign of a good culture.

They’re all linked. Whether you call it purpose or vision or mission, I think of that as your “why.” Why are we in business? Why are we here? Why does it matter? Identifying that is important because we’re dealing with the Great Resignation and the Great Reset. A lot of this is because employees aren’t finding meaning in their jobs—they’re not finding an opportunity to grow.

I often hear leaders say, “It doesn’t matter, that’s just the soft stuff,” about culture—but it does. Having stories around your purpose and tying that “why” into your five core objectives for the company is really important. In terms of the strategy and the culture, I think those have to be linked. How do we think about not just the result that we’re trying to drive and the objectives but how we are going to work together as a team to deliver those objectives?

How are we going to be innovative to meet some of the goals that we have set in front of us for the year? The really effective organizations are always looking at those three pieces and making sure employees understand what the company is doing in each of those areas.

Watch the full interview

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