Nikolaus Sühr, CEO and founder KASKO, on how you can build a company culture that crosses borders.
A company’s culture is similar to an individual’s character: it is what you do when nobody’s looking. You cannot dictate the culture for your business, frame it in the mission statement and expect your employees to simply go along with it. Culture is something you build together, encouraging attitudes and actions while having your values as a starting point. A strong company culture can either make or break your business so getting it right is always a delicate process. When you have a team split into several offices it becomes an even more challenging task.
A good company culture is first and foremost coherent and clear. This means that ideally, everyone is always aware of the results your actions can get you into regardless of the people or circumstances involved. Communicating this to a team divided between borders, however, it is not easy.
The learnings we’ve gleaned from having a team of 20 people spread across three offices in London, Hamburg and Riga, is that transparency is key. This is the central pillar of our company culture and has a direct impact on how our employees relate to each other and grow within and outside of the business.
Being aware of where the company stands allows people to see the company in a larger context rather than as individual’s partial view. People can see their actions and their subsequent repercussions, in a broader context. This allows people to see what challenges the organisation faces and if they want to step forward and try to solve them. By being open and giving feedback about the good and the bad, people learn to articulate both their own view but also be aware of the others peoples’ views. This fosters understanding and respect.
Transparency is also crucial when discussing remuneration. Every month we share with the whole team our financial situation as well as operational and product progresses and challenges. Everyone knows what everyone else is earning in terms of salary, bonus or equity. By making people aware of what other people are contributing as well as the larger financial context, we feel that “fair” is being transitioned from a purely individual to a more contextual viewpoint.
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Accountability and responsibility is another core value when building a company culture that crosses borders. This is something that should be encouraged both on the business and the tech sides of your company. Try to break tasks, projects and features down so you have one person accountable for each part of it. Taking ownership of a task from it’s beginning through to its end builds character especially when it comes to decision making and the trade-offs involved. Respect usually gravitates towards people who take responsibility for their actions. Being held accountable corroborates this effect. At the same time, giving people space to make mistakes encourages them to take responsibility.
Another value that’s worth adhering to is ‘team play’. This means communicating well, giving feedback, and having everyone ready to act when a problem arises. Focussing on team play allows interpersonal growth as well as higher specialisation. Working together, pulling together and seeing what people do and achieve builds mutual respect. If you don’t know what someone is doing it’s difficult to respect him/her for it.
We decided early on that if we are spread across different offices, it’s crucial that people have a chance to meet their colleagues working from other countries. We encourage relevant business trips to other offices and at least three times a year we arrange a company trip where we not only get work done but also have fun while team building. You have to take advantage of the time you are together to share the culture and work on it. By spending time together, we get to learn each other’s’ cultures as well as symbiotically growing that of the company.
When you don’t have your entire team working from the same space regularly, it is imperative you focus on collectivism rather than individualism. You should encourage your team to treat others as they wish to be treated, and don’t be afraid to ask your employees how they feel about the work environment, social interactions and personal growth. One idea is to hold sessions where you get all employees to fill out an anonymous questionnaire about the company and their own experiences. You can then use this feedback to make your culture stronger and help your business thrive.
Building a company culture is an ongoing process that needs to be constantly fine-tuned. As you grow your team, your culture might change as well. Moreover, as a company grows more emphasis needs to be put on making the implicit culture more explicit and re-evaluate it continuously. This does not mean one should water down one’s own values but emphasis can shift as you grow, just like an individual’s character can and does evolve as they grow up.