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Turning Fuzzy “Culture Stuff” Into a Strategic Plan that can Scale

People and culture leader Margo Downs joined us for an episode of the Creative Confidence Series to share lessons learned from her years as a leader in people operations at Stitch Fix, Starbucks, and lululemon athletica—companies well known for their distinctive cultures. We dove into the building blocks of culture, her framework for operationalizing culture at scale, and how to impact culture regardless of your seniority or title.

Business is booming, and your startup is growing fast. You quickly hire up and grow your employee base by two, three, 10 times the size. People are energized and you focus on your product since it seems like the people stuff is going well. Then employees start to leave. You hear whispers of dissatisfaction and hiring starts to get tougher as your team can’t articulate to candidates what it means to work for you.

How did you end up here? Wasn’t your culture really great in the beginning?

If you don’t pay attention and consciously and strategically build a culture that aligns with your company values, Margo Downs says it’ll morph into something else fast and problems will start to bubble to the surface. And that’s when you’ll see the connection between culture and the bottom line.

“If there's more than one person—even if there's one person—there's a culture that's actually being developed at that company,” Margo says. And one of your biggest mistakes is thinking culture will take care of itself.

Margo has been a people and culture leader for many years. Formerly the Chief People & Culture Officer at Stitch Fix and the senior vice president of people potential at lululemon athletica, she also spent 15 years with Starbucks Coffee Company in people operations and global learning. Her work at Stitch Fix centered around hiring and retaining incredible people, as well as creating a “cultural operating system” that distilled and supported a culture and values that drove strategic decisions across the company.

Margo joined us on the Creative Confidence Series to share tips for turning some of the fuzzy stuff around culture and people operations into an operationalized plan.

Building blocks of culture

While culture might seem vague and more “you know it when you see it” than something that can be put into a formula, there are three consistent qualities that Margo says appear in all healthy cultures: vision, authenticity, and consistency.

“As you have a vision for your product, as you have a vision for your service...What's your vision for people?” Margo prompts. Think farther out than your immediate needs. Review your business goals for the coming quarters or years and begin to think about what people goals you should set to make sure you reach them.

Authenticity means enabling your employees to be their truest selves, and in turn seeing your business benefit from that diversity of perspectives. Margo believes that “not every company is for every person.” Trying to be all things for all people can water down your culture into something that holds no meaning for anyone. Recognize that by being clear and focused in your culture you’ll attract people that will thrive at your company and reduce turnover.

Consistency is another attribute of a healthy company culture. Your leadership and every action you take should align with the values you define for your company. If you don’t act in alignment with your values at all times, culture becomes the corny “poster in the conference room” type thing that employees will see as something you say, but not something you do.

Creating a cultural operating system

Whether you’re an early stage startup just thinking about building your culture, or in a large organization and seeking to make improvements, a framework can help you clarify your thoughts and capture the good stuff that’s already happening inside your org.

“Every culture is unique,” Margo says. “What's not unique is that a framework is essential.”

At Stitch Fix, Margo created an OS, or operating system, to outline the key elements of the culture: what you hire for, values, and leadership principles. These are sustained and iterated through a feedback loop.

She began by talking to people, meeting with leadership, and codifying some things that already existed in Stitch Fix’s culture.

What they hire for is the baseline for all new employees—and a guidepost for when to let someone go. Every employee should share these qualities. Bring authenticity back into determining these qualities by being honest about what it takes to be successful at your company. 

“What behaviors would people be practicing if no one was watching them?” Margo asked. That’s the source of your values and culture. These may change over time.

When determining leadership principles, think beyond the C-suite. At Stitch Fix, Margo asked people to “tell us like what a leader looks like” and found that employees were motivated by stories of people—not just executives—who took the initiative and stepped up.

This framework creates your employment brand—your value proposition to employees.

“I don't think your employment brand is exactly the same as your consumer brand,” Margo says. “But I think there needs to be harmonization and alignment.”

Impacting culture even if you’re not in charge

Creating a cultural framework is a great idea if you’re the head of HR or the COO. But if you want to have an impact on your company culture and you’re not “in charge,” Margo promises you can still take action.

She suggests starting with a cultural audit. Look inward first with a self assessment. Is there an issue with the culture, or is something in your life or work causing a misalignment with your experience at the company? Then evaluate your responsibility and agency. What can you do to get clear and resolve these issues? Finally, assess the opportunity for change and take action. Is there a willingness to change or support from leadership for the work you want to do? If yes, then begin to try small experiments to make progress toward your vision.

For example, Margo shared a story about a company where there seemed to be alignment—everyone agreed they wanted to increase their innovation capabilities, but the team encountered pushback from leadership and the board when they tried new things. While leadership was asking for innovation, they were unwilling to provide support for risky new efforts. By uncovering this dissonance, there was an opportunity to realign the values of the company. While it might be uncomfortable to surface these issues, the result is more clarity for everyone involved.

Keep people at the center of culture

By operationalizing your culture and being more thoughtful about how it feels to work for your organization, you’ll attract the right people, enable more innovative work, and see business results.

Margo brings it back to keeping people at the center of your plans. “Sometimes in the workplace we forget humanity. We forget that we're dealing with human beings. And we forget that they're bringing all of that messiness and that beauty to the table.”


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