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Is the Key to Business Success Cracking the Culture Code?

One of the most lauded business books of 2018 was Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code. Culture is something that is fundamental for business success but also is intangible and difficult to actually quantify. As an idea, it intersects with a huge number of other qualities that are significant for modern business success: purpose leadership; talent management; collaboration and strategy.

But the very slipperiness of culture as a concept often means that the rational minds of lawyers may shy away from engaging fully with it. But culture definitely does matter: a Harvard Business School study showed that in a ten-year focus on 200 companies, those with strong corporate cultures increased their net profit by a staggering 765 per cent. Now that legal departments, like colleagues elsewhere, have to look to the bottom line, being mindful about culture seems like not merely a ‘nice to have’ but something that can actually create both profitability and efficiency. Sean Roberts, General Counsel of Glaxo Smith Kline’s Consumer Healthcare business and GLL member believes so: “For me thinking about culture is incredibly important and as a threshold matter, I would not want to work in an organisation that didn’t have a clear articulation of its purpose and vision that you can help shape. That’s fundamental and how you enact that vision that’s your culture.”

Daniel Coyle became fascinated by culture as a result of writing his earlier bestselling book, The Talent Code. Whether it was sports teams, tech businesses, Navy SEAL teams, high achieving schools, they all had a cohesiveness that was generally spoken of as if they were family. It was also very intangible, at first sight, as to what inspired that cohesiveness.

How it was described was often similarly unquantifiable: it’s just the way things are; it’s the secret sauce etc. In this sense, culture is a bit likeshoes: when they fit you don’t notice them, but when they don’t fit you can’t think about anything else!

In The Culture Code, Coyle studies a range of organisations to determine what aspects cause their cultures to work and also looks at what happens in groups where those qualities are missing. Coyle identifies three core skills which contribute towards building a cohesive culture:

  • Skill 1—Build Safety—explores how signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity.

  • Skill 2—Share Vulnerability—explains how habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.

  • Skill 3—Establish Purpose—tells how narratives create shared goals and values. The three skills work together from the bottom up, first building group connection and then channelling it into action.

Kenny Robertson who is General Counsel for Outsourcing, Technology & IP at RBS also feels culture is fundamental: “The fabric of the team and the culture is a big piece for us in terms of who we are and building engagement within the team and building our brand with internal and external stakeholders.”The team has created a document outlining their culture, the genesis of which was collective: ”We ran a session last year on culture: what we think our culture is currently and where it should be… The reason I wanted to have that session was that while it’s not always plain sailing, I did want us to reflect on the positive culture that we have developed over the years and appreciate how we got here. It was an exercise to codify where we think we are already, as well as to deliver objectives for where we want to be." I asked Kenny and a range of other in- house how Coyle’s ‘culture code’ aligned with how they build cultures.

Building Safety

A feeling of safety is not the by-product of a strong culture but rather the foundation upon which it rests. And it’s something all my general counsel interviewees felt was quite fundamental to a cohesive culture.

Coyle noticed that all in of the groups he visited, which were examples of strong organisational cultures, their members used the term ‘family’ to describe their relationship with each other.

He details some outward factors that all of the groups displayed in their interactions, which demonstrated this safe context such as physical proximity, active listening, short energetic exchanges, lots of questions and few interruptions. What these behavioural codes do is speak to our primal sense of safety by signalling belonging and answering the questions ‘are we safe here; is there danger; is there a future with this group of people?’ How belonging is coded, according to Coyle’s analysis, is via investing energy in the interaction- showing it matters; individualisation- showing the person they are unique and important, and future orientation- signalling the relationship will continue.

Leigh Kirkpatrick, who works for Kenny at RBS and leads a team within his broader team, feels that this sense of safety is a prerequisite for cohesive cultures and it needs to be tangibly demonstrated:

“A key way safety is demonstrated, and something that I have been really aware of in the wider team is that people have the ability to come to you and share issues, problems or talk through ideas. I would contrast that with the experience, which to me is typical in private practice, where partners may often say they have an open door policy but the conversation is handled in such a way as to not make you want to go back! Whenever someone asks to run something by me, I always prioritise that, as it’s a positive behaviour that I want to encourage – I feel that’s one tangible way to demonstrate safety, encourage vulnerability and support one another.”

Other aspects of how the Outsourcing, Technology and IP legal team build safety is by a mix of focus on both the greater group and the individual.

Central to this is coaching. Leigh explained that “In the coaching framework that is in place with my sub-team, there is the expectation that we have one or two coaching sessions a week. That might be me observing one of my team advising a business stakeholder, followed by an open, honest two- way feedback discussion. There’s also a lot of peer to peer coaching. One of the team has just been coaching Kenny this morning.” For Kenny being coached by someone his junior is a significant piece of role modelling in building the culture: “You need to be able to be coached, especially as a leader. Not only are you role modelling the right behaviours and making yourself vulnerable but it’s also important to demonstrate that you don’t have an ego and that you value different perspectives – that is key in nurturing an environment where people are comfortable in sharing their views and aren’t afraid to speak up.”

In his analysis of Indian based IT, outsourcing and call centre business, WIPRO, Coyle shows that when this business decided to try and fix its atrocious retention rate for employees, the most effective method was not merely building up a sense of the advantages of the organisation but rather building a strong sense of the individual within that organisation and what each individual brought to it.

Sean Roberts at GSK concurs with this notion that the whole is the sum of its parts, but with the caveat that safe does not mean uncompetitive or unchallenging but rather brings this out positively: “A safe environment doesn’t mean you don’t face challenges or you can’t challenge yourself. But if you are bringing the true self that absolutely allows for real growth potential, for yourself and the team.” As an example, Sean points to the LGBT experience in his workplace, “I have for many years been a straight ally to our LGBT group and have seen them grow from early beginnings to where my LGBT colleagues have flourished through an organisational culture that quite rightly sees them as valuable colleagues along with all others. That makes us all feel very proud to be working in a place where we can be what we are and contribute our best without fear or inhibition. We are safe.”

Sean also points to the fact that such safety allows for individuals to reflect on the bigger picture, “And these cultural foundations generate some fantastic conversations about how we, as a team, and how we, as an organisation, operate. That is particularly important in an industry like ours where ethics and values are such a central component.”

That notion is also echoed by Hershey general counsel and GLL member, Damien Atkins, who feels that there are definite commonalities within legal departments and companies particularly regarding psychological safety, “When people say ‘we are family’ it’s really expressing that psychological safety and ability to be who I am and live my own values.” A defining aspect of this for Damien and something which can become really significant for the legal department is the ability to disagree: “It’s key that I can express differences and if I disagree with leaders, I can do so without being punished. That to me is the strongest indicator of a cohesive culture,” explains Damien.

This completely reflects what Coyle points to in high performing cultures; when this sense of belonging seems to work best it is really a dance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group, not an either or. One of the tactics Coyle hones in on as being most significant is how leaders situate the individual and the group in relation to each other and the wider world context, both of which are really cemented by the next two building blocks in the culture code.

Share Vulnerability

If creating a sense of safety is the foundation of great culture, the next building block or a symbiotic process, which is equally important, is shared vulnerability. This might seem counter-intuitive, particularly if we frequently think of professional situations as being about displaying infallible competency; however, this is countered by evidence, which shows that revealing vulnerability and that being returned by a reciprocal show of vulnerability enhances the ability to work together. Coyle quotes the work of Harvard professor of organisational behaviour, Jeff Polzer, who shows that a vulnerability loop, as he terms this, is the best mechanism for building co- operation and teamwork. “Vulnerability loops seem swift and spontaneous from a distance, but when you look closely, they all follow the same discrete steps: Person A sends a signal of vulnerability. Person B detects this signal. Person B responds by signalling their own vulnerability. Person A detects this signal. A norm is established; closeness and trust increase.” (The Culture Code p.104)

Coyle’s thesis is that those organisations that don’t allow people to fail, be vulnerable or get it wrong don’t have great cultures. A common characteristic, however, of those that do have great cultures is greater co- operation and teamwork, stimulated by safety and being able to display vulnerability. A key example of this would be the coaching system at RBS where Kenny, the GC and team leader, is also being coached by his team members and displaying vulnerability.

An example Coyle frequently points to in his book is Google. Indeed the uniqueness of Google’s culture and its focus on cultural fit has been the subject of many books, most notably by their former Chief People Officer, Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules. Google’s overwhelming ethos was designed to be anti-bureaucracy. As Coyle details, their seminal breakthrough with AdWords came not as a result of a strategy meeting or a project task force but rather an employee randomly responding to Larry Page’s post-it note left in the kitchen fridge.

The symbiosis of creating a safe context and a context where you can share vulnerability has persisted within the company as it has grown and as it has expanded to include different departments such as legal. I spoke to Emma Jelley, former UK and Ireland Legal Lead at Google and detailed the notion of the importance of safety, shared vulnerability and purpose in creating the culture that’s become sofamous.

“All of those things are true for Google – the sense of safety, shared vulnerability, and common purpose – also within the legal team”, Emma told me. “It wasn’t written down, but it was more little rules of thumb and corresponding behaviours that built up to this sense of the culture.”

A significant driver for the Google legal team, perhaps one that many lawyers are not used to, was a robust attitude to failure. “Throughout the company, it was understood that it’s okay to fail as long as you learn from your mistakes and correct them fast. This rule of thumb works hand in hand with the “launch and iterate” culture of the product team.” Emma explains that the legal team were surrounded by colleagues testing products internally (“dogfooding”), and externally (“beta testing”), responding to feedback, and moving ahead: “This 'launch and iterate' culture enabled imperfection, and inevitably increased our sense of safety as we sought to do our best in our areas of responsibility.”

It was that safety to fail, she feels, that also contributed to a general sense of an “Appetite for now. Get on and do it, even if you might put someone’s nose out of joint”.

Emma remembers a time when the global legal team was growing so fast that there was a negative knock-on effect on decision making: “At a legal team summit we were encouraged not to become so paralysed by the possible number of stakeholders that we would stop making decisions in our project work: “Act, and ask forgiveness later”, was the general mantra. We left with a clear understanding that our judgment was valued and trusted and that we were operating in a safe environment.”

There was, even in legal, a sense that action and moving forward was better than inactivity and that striving for perfection could actually hamper action. This was encapsulated in the 80/20 rule. Emma explains, “The idea was to get the job done as best you can, but don’t labour for perfection: if you are partnering with a colleague on a deal, they won’t thank you for delaying it as you turn the contract from a functioning, fair document, into a work of art!”

Emma agrees that culture was further reinforced by the strong sense of shared vulnerability, including from the most senior leadership.”A senior leader sent a mea culpa around the company after his 360 review, in which he talked through the fact he could be quite acerbic and harsh and was going to do x y and z about it. Having that public an admission of vulnerability from someone at the top of the tree sends very strong cultural signals to everyone.”

Emma believes that examples such as this show that Google got the culture of shared vulnerability just right. “From experiences elsewhere I’ve seen that sharing vulnerability is only effective if led by the heart: enforced sharing of vulnerability lacks authenticity and won’t have positive cultural impacts.”

The interplay of safety and vulnerability is something Sean at GSK also believes is fundamental to understanding risk and developing, as lawyers and business partners, a culture of smart risk-taking: “As a legal team if you feel something is crossing the line into breaking the law you have no choice in closing that down; that by contrast is different to legal risk, such as the risk of being sued, which might not be certain. That’s where we, as with our all business colleagues, want something more punchy. What we are trying to do, through examples, is to emphasise as a legal team that we support creative risk-taking and we reinforce our support of this in our culture through examples shared at monthly team downloads where we have eastern hemisphere lawyers on in the UK morning, and Western Hemisphere lawyers on in the afternoon. These examples are intended to demonstrate not only where smart risk-taking has succeeded, but also where it has failed. Taking a smart risk where it was sensible and well thought out is something to recognise and celebrate as an advancement of a culture, regardless of whether it succeeds or fails. Doing something that is not sensible or well thought out- well, we all know that in any setting that is not a good thing.”

It’s that ability to foster a culture where failure is seen as part of the process that can also make colleagues more comfortable about sharing personal vulnerabilities, Sean believes. There’s a key role for leaders to play here, “We do foster a culture where people love coming into work, they feel they’re supported and that leadership won’t tolerate unreasonable behaviour. If it happens, I will genuinely go to bat for my team if business colleagues are unreasonable.”

At RBS “playing into the vulnerability piece,” as Kenny terms it is significant in getting new people to buy into the idea of culture the team is building, “We’re trying to get over the sense that fallibility is OK. We convey that through coaching and spotlights at team meetings. Leaders give examples of when we screw things up.”

Kenny believes this sort of mindset should be central to legal teams but often isn’t: “From an operational risk perspective, it’s important to share near misses and see highlight where we need to work on things. Generally, as a lawyer, it can be hard to display that vulnerability because lawyers are inherently competitive and operate in an environment where perfection is routinely expected.”

Leigh agrees, “Being vulnerable and sharing mistakes or near misses really builds the sense that we are a team rather than a collection of individuals. Some of the closest relationships are between those who have shared vulnerability: it has a galvanising effect.”

Damien at Hershey agrees that it’s a fundamental building block of a robust operational risk strategy to understand the value of failure: “How do you reward and punish behaviours and what’s your risk tolerance? How do you effectuate your risk tolerance within the legal dept as lawyers tend to be human insurance policies! But I think it’s critically important, especially in a leadership standpoint to get comfortable with failure, make it a point to go public and say ‘don’t worry about it ‘, if it’s not carelessness and, as a leader, giving freedom to fail.”

In the same way as Google, despite being a more traditional company, Kenny and his team at RBS are trying to instill the notion of iterate quickly, fail quickly, learn and move on: “We are doing quite a lot on design thinking and agile and scrum methodology and a lot of that is around failing fast,” Kenny told me. “That is very challenging for lawyers: the idea of iterating something, sharing the first cut of a document and showing the work in progress but, I think, increasingly, this way of working is going to become more and more relevant.” It’s also very significant in the next building block of the culture code, creating a sense of purpose.

A Sense of Purpose

Former, UK and Ireland Legal Lead, for Google, Emma Jelley spoke about how, in practice, culture was defined via a series of rules of thumb, which were expressed, mostly, through various aphorisms. This echoes the characteristics of many successful cultures where markers help drive a creative movement for an organisation, from where we are to where we want to be.

From the earliest days of culture, it’s been storytelling that helps cement shared cultural values and continually reinforces them, What helps to do that are markers, like the aphorisms common throughout Google, that help to consciously and unconsciously move the organisation towards the same goal. For Emma, Google’s statement of purpose was all-pervasive and was one thing she never lost sight of in her time in the legal department: “It’s very clear, Google’s mission is ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ After a while, you get cynical at moments, but nothing ever really knocked my belief in the fact that this sense of purpose did really infuse everything.” In part, that was the sum of all the little aphorisms and related behaviours but these also became very clear when the team and the company were put under stress when things did not go so well. “We would always assess and try and understand things that didn’t go so well: if you had bad press or an unsuccessful product launch, the team would have a postmortem; it was just in the culture.” But in understanding those failures, the purpose became a through line that also connected to the bigger picture than the particular event or project that didn’twork.

Many of the cultures discussed in Coyle’s book have not been consistently successful and some have had significant moments of failure. The difference with successful cultures seems to be that they use the crisis to further crystallise their purpose and often use that purpose statement or story to guide them through the good times and the bad. This gives us insight into building purpose and building culture. It’s not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite or encouraging everyone to recite from a hymnal of catchphrases. “It’s a never-ending process of trying, failing, reflecting, and above all, learning. High-purpose environments don’t descend on groups from on high; they are dug out of the ground, over and over, as a group navigates its problems together and evolves to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world.” (The Culture Code p. 229)

That’s something that Sean Roberts at GSK has seen in his 21 years at the company particularly in how it’s changed from more rules-based into more a value-based culture: “It feels like it moved from being much more of a rules-based organisation in the mid-2000s to be a more values-based organisation. This does force you to follow your gut a bit more.” Sean sees that in companies that focus on culture there’s got to be a healthy balance between purpose and performance: “The downside with thevalue-based

cultured is you don’t want people using values as an excuse for failure in performance.”

As GC for GSK’s Consumer Healthcare business, Sean tries to balance the overriding company culture and purpose with creating a culture within his own legal team but one that’s co-created by those who live it: “As GC, I really try to make cultural adjustments from the bottom up, from the grassroots. We pay a lot of attention to our survey scores, there’s a lot of listening to our teams. When we have had ideas put to us, we will act on those if we can and let the team know and give feedback on those we can’t act on.” It’s in this symbiosis between leadership and teamwork that Sean sees the building blocks: a safe space, share vulnerability and common purpose. “It’s being heard and being part of it, that is why the team are prepared to participate and be vulnerable, not just having their ideas flushed away. In crowdsourcing ideas, we are all shaping ourselves as lawyers for the future.”

Similarly, at RBS, the notion of being future ready is a theme which runs through the need for cultural cohesion, all working together to create a team that’s more than just a group of lawyers: “Our purpose and our culture go hand in hand. If there are cultural deficiencies, if the team isn’t displaying the right behaviours or values then we won’t realise our vision of being a market leading in-house legal team,” states Kenny.

Both Kenny and Leigh feel that having a purpose-driven mindset is increasingly something all in-house teams need, Part of this is being progressive and competitive: “Whilst currently every piece of work we do internally is still cheaper than sending it externally, changing market forces could mean that’s not always the case. Our value to the organisation has to be more than just monetary,” explains Kenny, “We have to be more ambitious than just sitting with our heads down, being technicians. For us, our ‘why’ is being a market leading and progressive in house legal team. Looking at a lot of market-leading companies like those described in Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, such as Apple and Southwest Airlines, it’s that sense of purpose, which is defining their success. We, as a team, similarly need to understand who we are and where we are going in order to drive the team forward.”

However, purpose is something Damien at Hershey struggles with as a concept for the legal team due to the diversity of individuals working in a large organisation. “I think it’s got to be based more around the individual bringing their own defining sense of purpose to what they do at work. Environmental, social, governance exerts a pressure for companies to live for a higher purpose, and that there has to be an animating force that’s more than just making money. But how do you square that with the experience of the person on the assembly line making Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? It’s a little bit ‘first world problems’!”.

Leigh at RBS believes that it’s hard to delineate the different aspects of the culture code as they are all inter-related. “It’s perhaps helpful to establish your purpose first, then the other aspects can fall into place. Knowing what you want the team to be about, what it stands for and what you want to be recognised for as a team is important before you start thinking about how the culture behaviourally plays out.”

Conclusion: Does culture ultimately eat strategy for breakfast?

It would seem so, both within the wider organisation and the legal teams within them. It makes sense, that if in-house legal teams are being judged increasingly on metrics common to the wider business, such as profit and loss; efficiency and use of talent, then the same factors for the success of the wider organisation will need to be a focus. For many successful businesses, it’s really the intangible building blocks of culture, which can make or break the bottom line.

As automation grows, it’s also the truly human factor, which will increasingly differentiate the professions. How we perform and interact as humans at our fullest potential, in cultures that work well for us but also allow us to be creative, needs to be front of mind for all business leaders, legal and otherwise.


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