The Bay Area Market is well-known for being competitive for talent, and while ping-pong table sales have sky-rocketed, so too has the need to emphasize the Human and de-emphasize the Resource, of the traditional HR function.
Over the course of the last decade, we have witnessed a notable shift in our clients’ prioritization of the people function within their businesses, with far more emphasis being placed on culture, retention, and diversity. Many clients have gone to the extent of aligning the CHRO directly under the CEO, rather than simply viewing it as a cost to be placed under the CFO and driven down as much as possible; the philosophy here being that, when it comes to HR, no noise is good noise. But evidence seems to be supporting the former approach, that the essence of what a company represents, its vision, values, and assumptions, directly affect its ability to attract the best people, especially in a competitive talent landscape like the Bay Area. The equation, it seems, is simple:
good people = good business
Wilton & Bain’s Loren Hiser and Lucy Feltham sit down with Charisse Fontes, Founder of The Culture Circle, and Author of “How to Keep Your Culture from Going to Sh*t”, to talk about the evolving role of the HR function, and the importance of creating a positive company culture. We begin by asking Charisse to share her perspective on what is at the core of this unfolding paradigm shift.
“People are more in charge of their own careers than ever” she tells us. “Our expectations of what a job should be have shifted, and we are way too liberated and creative now to stay in one company for 50 years. Companies are starting to recognize that they can’t keep up with this if they continue to employ a 1950’s mentality of ‘paying people for their time’. Instead they need to build a culture of respect for each individual and the value they can add to their business; to their tribe”.
Both on the edge of our seats at the use of the word ‘tribe’, we ask Charisse for her perspective on Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’.
Her eyes light up and she nods frantically, “Yes, exactly! You need to do something, other than the daily grind of the job to elevate a group of people into a culture”.
The idea here, is that the reason we Homo Sapiens won the battle of evolution, was our capacity to bring together a larger tribe than other species through the application of ‘fiction’. This means using communication not just to represent material reality, but to create our own reality and assign a value to it, such as a belief system, a sense of nation, or even placing value on pieces of metal to facilitate trade. The ability to interact at a level beyond the mundane, leads to large-scale, flexible co-operation, thereby paving the way to success as a tribe, or, in this case, as a company. Thus, if you think of the culture of a company in terms of a tribe, with a shared value system, reward system and mission, it makes sense to assume that those with a stronger sense of this are able to perform better.
“For example,” Charisse continues, “I was employee number 13 at a company that hadn’t yet defined itself. I was the only female in the company, and I realized early on that people were away from their homes, so I decided to mother them and make them all food. I didn’t buy the food, I made it. And after a while it became a normal thing, people expected it. That’s when it became a culture of care, and the company started to flourish. There is an element here of staying ‘low to the ground’ and recognizing our needs as human beings. Then before you know it you have the most loyal people. Your people will work their butts off for very simple things. You will get more honesty in someone you’ve invested in over time than someone you’ve just handed $1000 to”.
The use of the word tribe can also conjure up negative connotations, and one can’t help but wonder if the concept can be pushed too far. Can you affect people’s behavior in a negative way by pulling them too far into a culture that overrides the individual’s sense of self (think Dave Egger’s The Circle). We ask Charisse about the potential dangers here; when does a tribe become a cult?
Her answer is rapid; “this can happen when people become too sucked into something and sacrifice their own self-care. When you become too immersed in a culture you can lose your ability to think independently. For example, when CEO’s only surrounds themselves with leaders who ‘drink the Kool-Aid’, the creative vision of the team is obscured and they end up having to pull in outsiders – consultants – to bring back perspective and drive innovation”.
“The saying that culture starts from the top down,” she continues, “is both true and not true. You can’t just have one person responsible for culture. If the CEO isn’t a chief – someone who is a strong leader within the ecosystem of the tribe – if they are too execution driven, they cannot be in charge of culture. The stuff a team says at the lunch table, without the CEO there, that is the culture”
So, what should companies do when they recognize the need for a culture change? When their culture does, as Charisse so eloquently puts it, ‘turn to s**t’?
Charisse gives us a stern look, “companies should not be super-reactive when it comes to making changes in a culture. It causes chaos and chaos is infectious. To be proactive about building a culture, a company needs to employ observation, self-reflection and thoughtfulness. If a company simply waits until there is a culture problem to react, what they end up building in to ‘fix’ the problem is not sustainable because they won’t have given it enough thought”.
Charisse continues, “Companies tend to look at each other’s culture and say, ‘I’m going to do that’, rather than assessing what’s good for their island. What does work is gradually adapting behaviors to your team, rather than making big shifts, or attempting to plug-and-play”.
We are curious how Charisse would advise companies that struggle to balance an investment in culture building with the short-term pressures of quarterly results and a razor-sharp focus on bottom line.
“Well,” she says, “a culture that is built over night, falls in a day, but a culture that is built over a long time will give you bottom line improvements and more. It has been proven by companies – like Apple for example – that designing an environment to specifically facilitate the success of your people, yields great financial results. Companies haven’t taken enough of the human aspect seriously. Employers are trying to catch up with the fact that it’s the people who are driving the company, with the numbers in tow. Not the other way around”.
A glance at the San Francisco skyline out of the window reminds us of where we are, in a hyper competitive technology market where companies have deep, private equity enabled pockets that allow them to offer desk massages and bottomless Kombucha to their coveted workforce. With this in mind, we self-consciously ask Charisse one more question.
“Is this obsession with culture relevant to the global market, or are we living in a Bay Area bubble?”
“It is very clear that there is more focus on this here than other places,” she says. “But companies all over are trying to figure this out. The biggest problem we have here is apathy, with employers looking for a quick fix. Tech companies are spending millions of dollars to roll out ‘appreciation tools’ and ‘virtual high-fives,’ when really the answer is much simpler; we just need to care about our people more”