Culture Club – Driving high performance with virtue



No one needs to tell anyone in a start-up that’s its bloody hard. To remind you that, if you’re doing it right, you generally have far too much to do and rarely enough time or resources to achieve it.



So how can you justify taking your entire team out of the day-to-day business just to talk culture regularly ?



Well I suppose that depends on what you think as a organisation about performance and virtue. I will spare us all the lecture, the research and all the compelling arguments around culture. If you get it, you know why. If you don’t, you won’t.



For us a PepTalk, culture is as crucial. It is our priority. Clarity on culture, speeds up the rest of our work over time, so for us it is worth every precious minute of the upfront investment that we put into developing and managing our culture.



As an organisation that is literally made up of 80% ex or current athletes, high performance is, quite frankly, our obsession. We are on mission PepTalk and nothing less than the highest levels of performance will get us where we are going.






The focus of PepTalks Culture Club (aside from getting to wear cool 80’s gear and listen to some seriously dodgy music) is to bring our culture alive, to help us keep getting after it and iterating on what our culture is and is not, what’s working and what do we need a different approach to, and most importantly to be something that we actively discuss and plan for.



We decided ‘early doors’ that we would be ruthless in terms of our culture.



Instead of writing that nice and inspiring stuff that looks great on the website and everyone wants to hear, that we would make decisions off the back of it … namely it would be what we ‘hire, fire and promote on’. That was the kicker – did each of us feel strong enough that we would make decisions off the back of it.



Needless to say, when it came to deciding on what was important to our performance, what stayed in and what got-the-boot in our values – that perspective gave the discussion a real edge. Hire, fire or promote are not shy words. It was a bold statement of intent.



So, a bit on the approach we took :



Being collaborative in nature, there were tons early conversations as both leaders and also with the wider team about culture. But we never seemed to make really sizeable progress. However we did learn a good deal from those sessions.



In those meetings we learned a couple of things that were pertinent to our organisation :



  1. Culture needs an owner, if someone doesn’t drive it, it just roams around the plains of good intentions like a baby velociraptor

  2. Culture depends on what the vision for the company is both in terms of what you are looking to achieve and how you want to achieve it

  3. Culture needs initially to be driven by the founders/leaders who have the vision for the organisation

  4. Culture needs definition in a very day-to-day matter of fact and practical way

  5. Culture can be managed, no different than any other task or activity, sometimes it just takes more effort

  6. Culture by consensus feels nice, but is meek. Culture should help people make decisions e.g. do I join this company or not, do we hire this person or not, do I do take this course of action, or not …

  7. Culture takes work and time, there are no shortcuts, its hard work

  8. Culture in action (the type that drives high performance) is even harder

  9. Culture (the type you want) rarely happens by accident or organically, and sometimes you need to plan, force or structure what you want

  10. Culture change requires everyone usually to make changes, so you would better make it pretty compelling



In terms of what really brought it to life, as a leadership team we spent time doing the following :



  1. Articulating where we are going and what performance (both in terms of technical/practical achievements and what behaviours did we want to see to achieve those outcomes) we expect. What were we willing to accept and what would be unacceptable.

  2. To assess, with as much data as we could reasonably gather, where our performance is at currently.

  3. Use these two elements, to define what we might need to prioritise

  4. We wanted to firstly calibrate on our assumptions & philosophies around work, how people work, how we should behave and how we feel we should mange ourselves and our business. This was like the backdrop to, or the environment that would surround our values. Some good lessons from this discussion … Learning #1 : super easy to say, much harder to do in real life. Learning #2 : easy to write stuff down, not so easy to live it. Learning #3 : assumptions really need to be tested and debated, it’s too easy to think you are calibrated on what things really mean. Finally, Learning #4 : philosophies and assumptions can sound nice, but have an inherent tension in them and are far harder to put into practice when you really tease them out (much like when you go to pet a fluffy kitten and it bites your pinky)

  5. Finally, we worked out the values that would bring this to life, what they mean (contradictions and tensions included) in real life, what questions could we ask ourselves to test if we were really living the value.



Brining it all together :



When we felt we were at MVP Stage, then we sat with our entire team to pick though, challenge, calibrate on and iterate all of these elements.



What happened :


  • We had some great discussion

  • We had great debate

  • We changed out some stuff

  • We got to hear all the voices and perspectives

  • We shared context with each other

  • We challenged some of our assumptions, understandings and perspectives

  • We agreed on how we could ‘action’ brining this to life

  • We confirmed that this would be a living breathing document and would change over time as we work on it, and that’s cool



We also :


  • Ran out of time

  • Need to do more

  • Realised some bits just wouldn’t happen organically and have to plan for them in our next session

  • Ate 4 easter eggs, felt sick as a result

  • Had a good laugh

  • Appreciated our partner David’s fantastic graphic representation of some elements of the meeting, so it would stay in our minds eye day-to-day

  • Decided to put it out into the world in our blog (cause that will layer on the accountability for us to ‘live’ it, yeiks!) and it’s good to share and help others





So our first draft culture deck, looks like this [but it will change, it should change over time] :



Also hat-tip to our good pal Patty McCord, the queen of values .. we couldn’t find a better way to describe your freedom and responsibility concept – hell, you can’t improve on perfection so we left if ‘as is’ !


















What do you think?


Have you any experiences with culture in start-up, any nuggets you are willing to share?

What have been your learnings? What landed well in your organisation? What fell off the edge of a cliff? What tactical approaches have you taken to bring your values to life that have worked well ? We would love to hear them …







Michelle Fogarty

COO & Co-Founder @ PepTalk


Let's make work better …


At PepTalk, engagement is at the heart of all our wellbeing platform. Our platform is about energy, passion and fun while being grounded in key business outcomes.


To find out more about this area and our wider PepTalk offering book a demonstration at www.peptalk.ie or email james@peptalk.ie








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