My role as the Chief Culture Officer of a Fintech startup was to help the team do just that. To build the perfect company for each other.
The collective goal of the team: To make this the last job they would ever need.
I started working with the CEO and Co-Founder when he was working for a larger Fintech company. The primary focus of our work together was to help him as a first-time CEO to hone the skills needed to be an effective CEO leader.
When he decided to launch his new startup with a small group of Co-Founders, the scope of our work together broadened to include building a team and creating a very special company that would make us all proud.
Over the course of 3 years, the company grew to a team of 23 experienced professionals committed to delivering enterprise grade solutions for institutional capital markets clients using blockchain technology.
Learning the ropes
For the CEO and the Management team, culture was not just viewed as guiding how the team interacted; they firmly believed it was the fundamental glue which held their ambitions together.
Recognizing the truly global nature of their opportunity, they established engineering and software development teams in both London and New York, business development functions in Singapore, and corporate headquarters in Bermuda.
From Day 1, it was a complex set-up to manage harmoniously – and while we didn’t know it at the time, the globally distributed nature of the team prepared us for the workplace disruption caused by the recent Pandemic.
We wanted a set of values that would guide all our daily activities including hiring, client onboarding, dealing with the inevitable set-backs, and even influencing how new business ideas were prioritized and executed.
We believed that creating this culture would be a critical point of distinction – not only for the cohesion of our existing team, but for ongoing recruiting and fundraising efforts.
Setting sail for a cultural adventure
As I mentioned to the CEO during one of our first meetings, my belief is that culture is not something you declare, instead it represents the by-product of individuals evolving into a high-performing team.
To provide a catalyst, we first needed to get to know each other at a deeper level; we needed to understand each other’s drivers, motivators and individual core values.
We then needed to agree on how to articulate these into a collective set of company values and identify behaviors that supported these values and those that did not.
Finally, we needed to create a way to track our progress.
We embarked on a journey.
The cards of destiny
Mindful of the old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words, we first used a tool developed by the Center for Creative Leadership called Visual Explorer™ (“VE”) to enable effective dialogue about complex issues.
The process serves to connect the right and left sides of the brain as each member of the team tell his/her story.
Each member of the team selected cards with the images they felt best conveyed their own vision for the company’s market opportunity; and to explain what their unique contribution to that opportunity would be.
As these stories unfolded, key words and messages emerged that formed the basis for defining our values. We also learned more about each other on a deeper level which helped to create connections that served as the underpinning for our effective working relationship as a team.
After several iterations in small groups and then all together, we agreed upon a set of clear values that were actionable.
Unlocking the Pirate Code
Identifying values is a good start; but the real benefit comes from translating them into principles that guide everyday behavior. The next step in the process was for us to identify and agree on specific behaviors which either amplified or obstructed these values.
We searched for real life examples to illustrate what worked and what didn’t work for this newly formed, fast-growing team. The result was what the team called their Pirate Code of Conduct.
How is this different from any corporate “mission/vision/values” statement?
First and most importantly, the values and Pirate Code of Conduct were created from within; with contribution from every team member, along with a commitment to hold each other accountable for walking the walk.
Secondly, the values were truly actionable and every member of the team was encouraged and rewarded for pointing out good behaviors – giving props where props were due – and providing constructive feedback and ways to do better the next time when bad behaviors crept in.
Walking the talk
As the company grew, operating at “Mach 5” speed like most start-ups, we realized that the only way to ensure that the culture continued to evolve as we intended was to take stock of how we were doing via regular retrospectives and to face up to our mistakes.
During our retrospective sessions we used a number of different facilitation techniques to elicit real input from each member of the team so we could hear different viewpoints about what we were doing well, what we could have done better, and what we needed to do more of to deliver on our promises to our customers and ourselves.
While these sessions required an investment of time and emotional commitment from the entire team to live up to the Pirate Code, we all realized that this was a process that needed to persist as the company grew and developed so we could continue to deliver amazing value to our clients.
Building culture takes effort, but without a strong culture and shared belief system amongst the team, it is much harder to reach your company’s true potential. It’s never too late to start the journey and we’re here to help.
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