Creating cultures: Seven tools

Creating cultures: Seven tools

My absolute favourite shoes, my “172s” from Seven Feet Apart. Today is a guest post from Matt Bagwell, co-founder of Seven Feet Apart, who I’ve written about here before, most recently in: “Some people feel the rain“, noting that, with their business, they seek to answer the question:

“Can a shoe company and its customers work together to make the world– and specifically, our communities – better? We believe we can and we do.”

I love it when people share their learnings around leading and building a business.

Culture matters and Matt has recently published a great “how-to” on building a Culture on LinkedIn, republished here today with his permission.

In his article Matt has used a great methodology to outline not only each tool but also what you can do to implement it, along with his experience of doing so:

  • The tool
  • Using the tool
  • Tips for implementation
  • The tool in practice
  • In summary

I love this method and encourage you to read the full article. Matt clearly loves the number seven, so there are seven tips and seven tips for each tool, so you will find multiple gold nuggets in those forty-nine tips!

For those wanting to get to the last page, he finishes with these powerful thoughts:

“You have a culture whatever you do. It’s a bi-product of procedures, processes and behaviours. Nevertheless, you should invest in it heavily. For me, this certainly doesn’t mean employing a single Chief Culture Officer. It means making everyone in your business one, including you.”

Creating cultures: Seven tools we use to achieve high performance (Quick Tips).

by Matt Bagwell

I am going to describe seven tools you can use to establish and maintain a high-performance culture. They are tools that I have used and experienced in the World’s leading consulting and creative companies and now in my own business, SEVEN FEET APART.

A high-performance culture is more engaging for the team in it; when people are engaged, they are productive, positive, attract like-minded ‘others’ and tend to stick around. There is also evidence that an engaged team, in a positive culture, value their work more than their paycheque.

These tools are all a means to an end; if they’re implemented well, the results could be brilliant.

Only got 10 seconds? Here’s the skinny.

  • You already have a culture.
  • You always have one, whatever you do – or don’t.
  • It’s a consequence of your policies and behaviours.
  • Culture will change – even if you do nothing differently.
  • It’s not someone’s job.
  • You can influence it.
  • Every action matters.


There has been so much written about culture in business. In my home office, there’s a pile of business books (that I kick over all the time) that are squarely about the subject – for example, Chief Cultural Officer by Grant McCracken or Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed – or loosely related to it. Many business leaders and managers will have been taught about it and for some – the better ones – it will be front of mind Sadly, in my experience, what’s considered and planned with good intentions ‘academically’ and then what’s implemented and practiced in reality have been worlds apart.

What is ‘Culture’ – without looking it up on Google?

For me, culture the spirit of a place and how it feels. I use the word ‘place’ in the broadest terms; how does a town feel, how does a country feel, how does a company feel? The spirit of a place and how it feels is the result of many things of course.

  • Values and Principles
  • Beliefs
  • Rituals
  • Rules
  • Context

From a ‘citizen’s’ perspective, the culture of a place dedicates the societal ‘norms’ for us. Culture is the signposts and guide rails to how we should behalf in this particular place to fit in – or the behaviours we’ve demonstrated if we don’t.

What authority do I to write about high-performance culture?

In my professional career, I’ve affected cultures in the companies I’ve worked in and now the company that I own. I’ve worked in high-performance cultures all my adult life – from serving wealthy people in hospitality (yes, I was a waiter) to working the best retail consultancy in the UK to leading one of the most awarded creative agencies in the world. All of which only means that I’ve been a part many discussions that went along the lines of, “what culture are we trying to create?”

Throughout this career, what’s been my key learning?

How you act is far more critical to culture than what you say.

You can say that you want people to do their best work and you can empower them to be able to do their best work. As a leader or manager, your work is not done when to make your proclamations, it’s done when you implement real strategies for making goals possible.

I’m a cyclist so I will use the sport as an analogy. Telling someone to, “peddle faster” is never going to be as effective as atomising the objective (achieving better performance) into all of the contributing facets and addressing those, one by one, in actionable strategies.

Note – I have written the tools as a sometimes leader and manager, to leaders and managers.

Seven tools for sustaining a high-performance culture.

When I say tools, I mean practices, techniques and behaviours. Each one is outlined first and then I offer some quick tips. They are suggestion over sure-fire solutions and every one of you is in a different context to any I have been a part of.

Let’s start with Purpose.

Tool One: Purpose

Oh boy, this is a very popular subject and a well-worn path. The airport library is full to the brim with best-sellers about both about personal and professional Why’s? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising the movement (to Purpose), any of its principle protagonists like the writer of “Start with Why”, Simon Sinek or the consultative practise to find yours. I’ve sold it (defining one) many times myself. A dynamic, progressive culture is predicated on a clear objective, a clear ‘why are we doing any of this.’ The clearer that why is coupled to something we actually really care about, the stronger the engagement. The stronger the engagement, the more positive the culture.

Using the tool.

Most businesses write down a statement. I prefer to think of writing it ‘up’ instead, big, on a wall (not down, on a piece of paper to get lost). It’s normally prefaced with the words, “We exist to…” How do you create one (short of employing a consultant like me)?

Make your why really clear.

Why do I need to peddle faster, perform better, sell more, retain more? Can everyone you ask (in your company) attribute the additional effort to something they really care about? It’s OK for goals to be factual, pragmatic and commercial. And tied to something people care about like their remuneration, most obviously. It’s also good to attribute more effort to (arguably) higher emotional ambitions – being the best, saving the world. True, they are often more subjective. However, they are often more quintessentially human. In fact, I’d suggest that creating a purpose that considers both together creates the best culture.

Can you and the people you work with articulate the same reason why the business or organisation you’re all a part of exists?

Tips for implementation

  1. Ask everyone in the team – often – if they know the purpose for your company or organisation
  2. Use language that real people use, not consulting gobbledegook
  3. Make it emotional.
  4. Write it up where it can be seen – not down, where it will be forgotten
  5. Make it visual – people remember pictures. Think, man’s first step on the moon
  6. Connect every successful behaviour and result to the purpose, celebrate and communicate it; make your purpose real in action
  7. Revisit it – does it still ring true and is it still relevant

The tool in practice

Why do SEVEN FEET APART do what we do? We exist to make beautiful footwear that performs brilliantly, meaning people who wear Sevens experience more comfortable everyday journeys. All the while, we are an exemplar for a better way to do business; fairer, kinder and more sustainable.

In summary

Purpose is a North Star; it gives direction to everything a company does. Make it human, clear and apply it constantly and consistently. Purpose leads to meaningful work, the foundation of happiness, contentment and high performance.

And that leads me to Tip Two.

Tool Two – Attribution of roles to purpose

People often cite a janitor, who, when asked what he did for NASA, replied, “I’m working to put a man on the moon.” What is implied in this reply is that the USA would be the first country in the world to achieve this lofty ambition, which would position them as world leaders and therefore garner supremacy, which in turn, fuels economic success, which means better salaries which means the janitor takes home more pay. All of this was packaged up in a mission statement; “putting a man on the moon.” Nice and simple. Awe-inspiring. Visual. Human.

In high performing cultures, every member of the team knows how their endeavours, their effort, work and time, ladders up to the overall purpose of the team, organisation or business they are part of. Can everyone do this in your business?

Using the tool

This is straight-forward. Rewrite your role or job descriptions. Create a direct link between what you want to achieve with the role and responsibilities you state. By framing an individual’s performance with the purpose of the company, you can be engendering an emotional connection between them.

Tips for implementation

  1. Keep it realistic, practical, actionable and measurable. Abstract ideas – or ideals – get lost in translation
  2. Walk the recipient through it
  3. Discuss how they would behave and perform to deliver their role and contribute to purpose
  4. Ask them to be very specific to the actions of their role
  5. Meet your team to discuss the attribution of effort to purpose – habitually
  6. If the connection is degrading, either the purpose is being lost, the roles people perform aren’t clear, or performance is inhibited for some reason. Which is it? Why is it?
  7. Publicly reward individuals with a very clear articulation of the connection between their performance and purpose

The tool in practice

We do have role and responsibilities documents and the relationship between the role, tasks and purpose is described. We also have regular team check-ins and reviews. We benefit from being a small team, working very closely, every day. It is very easy to see the direct relationship between our activities and the key performance indicators of our business.

In summary

If someone can see that their effort directly contributes to a great idea, ideal and objective, they understand their value better – and potentially, feel more valued. This engenders a culture of can-do, must-do of behaviour, beating ‘it’s-not-my-job’ underperformance every time.

Tool Three – In the moment debriefing

Matthew Pinsent describes the routines, habits and rituals that propelled him and the Great Britain coxless fours rowing team to four consecutive Olympic gold medals as a constant pursuit; “to make the boat go faster.” They trained daily for nearly four years; and each session focused on that singular goal. Every time they got out of the boat, they ran a debrief. Not later that same day, when they had forgotten what had happened but right there and then, in the heat of the moment. If someone had not pulled correctly, they explored why. They held one another accountable for their daily improvement because they knew that this would compound into the final Olympic race.

In the moment debriefing can be challenging. It can also engender a culture of camaraderie; trust, respect and shared responsibility.

Using the tool.

At the end of every significant team effort, debrief together, quickly and as a team. Ask yourselves these questions:

  • What was the objective?
  • What went right? Can we do it again and better?
  • What went wrong and why? Can we avoid it happening again?
  • What is the key learning?
  • What will we do immediately, differently, next time?

Tips for implementation

  1. Make sure everyone knows how to do this exercise and why it’s important
  2. Do it immediately after a significant milestone or effort e.g. after a pitch, even before you hit the pub
  3. Do the debrief in a standing circle, facing each other
  4. If something has gone wrong, call it out
  5. If something has gone wrong and it’s a person’s mistake, have the confidence to call them out
  6. Be prepared to collectively accept an apology and immediately close down further criticism. Once a mistake is dealt with in that circle, it’s done. Only this behaviour will engender a culture of trust
  7. Similarly, if something has worked well, highlight it and be specific
  8. Restate the objective you are all trying to achieve – however obvious – and ensure that what you will do the same or differently to achieve it in future is crystal clear

The tool in practice

I’ll be totally honest; we probably don’t use this as often as we should at SFA. There are so many demands on our time that we prioritise (over this). We do run a weekly team trading meeting, where we look at our performance over the week. In future, we might cover behaviours as much as tactics. I have used the tool for a period of time in a previous agency and it worked well. The team quickly developed a culture of trust and our performance improved.

In summary

Brutally honest debriefs that complete the feedback loop can be very hard to maintain as a habitual action. As for the people who do maintain the habit, what happens to them? They are often the best teams in the world. Just ask Pinsent or the teams he beat in ten world championships.

The effectiveness of the in the moment debrief is dependent on honesty. It’s also dependant on high-quality communication, the underlying theme of Tool Four.

Tool Four – Because… feedback

This tool is similar to the in the moment debrief in so much as it requires there to be direct human interaction although it’s most applicable for one-to-one conversations over group discussions. Well-intentioned, potentially valuable feedback – praise or criticism – can prove to be forgettable at best and counter-productive at worst. Whether is praise or a criticism, when feedback isn’t specific, it’s power can be lost in translation.

Sometimes, a offered a high five, “you’re great,” or a lazy, “you’ve been crap” just doesn’t cut it. Why? Because there are no “…because…” Make your feedback specific and you’ll fuel a culture of progress.

Using the tool

When you’re are giving feedback – either positive praise or criticism, be specific about exactly what it is that the recipient did and what you think the outcome was. As far as it’s possible, be objective and if you can, give facts and evidence. Your feedback should be irrefutable and highly likely to be more memorable. It gives people evidence of what they actually did so that they can repeat an action or behaviour – or avoid them – again in the future. There’s also a bi-product and this is respect for your feedback. It’s thought-through, rigorous, specific and actionable. It also demonstrates a higher level of care, commitment and emotional intelligence.

Tips for implementation

  1. Take time to prepare because… feedback, gathering facts and objective evidence – even if it’s quick thoughts
  2. Avoid a fleeting exchange and if it’s unavoidable, still embed your praise of criticism in specifics, facts and objectivity
  3. Prepare the recipient in advance for receiving feedback. No one responds especially well to surprise attacks
  4. Do it in private
  5. Be prepared to give people time to explore the feedback with you but close down subjectivity quickly
  6. Write the feedback down and be prepared to give it to the recipient – writing something in black and white can help remove bias and emotion and what someone hears might not be what you said. If feedback is in writing, they can reflect on the facts again, late
  7. Invest in feedback training – it can be coached into your team in a safe, role play environment. A good coach will understand the benefit of the specificity of because…

The tool in practice

When I’ve used because… feedback, the results have been brilliant. My feedback is considered, the delivery balanced, focused on outcome and the recipient has responded well – in the main. Inversely, when I have used impulsive, poorly prepared and emotional feedback, the results have often been counter-productive. Even as I write this blog, I can reflect on recent exchanges of feedback that would appear more like ‘exchanges of fire!’ Giving great because feedback requires emotional intelligence; it should be given with empathy and control and when we’re under severe pressure, both can be underplayed, neglected or absent altogether.

In summary

A great culture encourages specific, objective and well prepared because… feedback; it engenders trust (there’s that word again) and respect and people learn and progress far faster than in a culture of vague, poorly considered criticism.
Giving feedback can be one aspect of recognition, the fifth tool.

Tool Five – Recognition

You’ve set a purpose that is important and human. You’ve attributed an individual’s ‘so what?’ into that purpose so they can contribute their effort effectively. You run effective debriefs and deliver meaningful feedback. Your highest performing people respond and thrive.

So, when they do, recognise them.

We are humans. We respond to praise, encouragement and the rituals of recognition. Granted, some more than others. Recognising someone’s behaviours, actions and achievements will act as a validation of the core principles you have built your enterprise on. The recognised become exemplars of everything you strive for as a high-performance culture.

Using the tool

Recognition – and reward – is a complex business dynamic. This is because the two aspects are so often inextricably linked and people’s behaviours can be artificially driven by bonuses, pay raises, awards etc. They focus on the outcome, not the process or purpose of recognition itself. Similarly, the recognition – and related reward – can be (very) distant from the action, behaviour and achievement on which it is predicated so the time to loop the ‘learning loop’ is long.

As much as recognition can be a powerful motivator, a lack of recognition can kill a culture as fast or faster. Similarly, recognising misplaced behaviours. It’s critical to make a clear and public link between your purpose, your values and your recognition framework. Anything less and you will fuel a critical, cynical or cancerous counter-culture.

Tips for implementation

  1. Plan how recognition – and rewards – works as a business dynamic in your business
  2. Do it as soon as there is not tacit understanding of the value of performance. The number in the team? Pretty much any number over the number of founders
  3. Give recognition quickly and ensure it’s clearly linked to your purpose, values and principles. “Jack’s a great lad” doesn’t cut it
  4. Consider whether recognition is public or private – both can be very highly valued
  5. Don’t always link recognition with rewards (of any kind)
  6. I could write another post about rewards – and maybe should – my advice is, don’t make them all financial. Your time, a gifted book, a few carefully chosen words in a card – these can all have value too
  7. Most importantly, in my experience, be consistent. Inconsistency is divisive – whether you intend it to be or not

The tool in practice

I have applied recognition frameworks and I have operated in them. I have been recognised very fairly by organisations with clear frameworks and been treated disingenuously in an insidious culture. As a consequence, at SEVEN FEET APART, we are quick to recognise high-performance behaviours and when it’s appropriate, reward them with kindness.

In summary

Every time someone demonstrates a behaviour that typifies the culture you want to enable, celebrate it. Don’t wait for an annual review. Do it quickly. Make it a habit.

And reward performance with something people really value. Like flexibility.

Tool Six – Flexibility

We’re funny fish, humans. we often strive for freedom, liberty and humanitarian values and yet allow ourselves to be controlled and conditioned in bureaucratic and draconian systems, especially in corporate cultures., as leaders, we often create or perpetuate bad practices; inflexible working hours, scorn when life circumstances are inconvenient and at worst, discriminatory actions and behaviours. Cultures like this bred anxiety, not creativity and productivity.

Recent research undertaken for ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), provides qualitative evidence that Flexible Working Arrangements (FWA) – as they are known – increase team effectiveness and productivity. Similarly, there is evidence that people who enjoy flexibility at work are increasingly likely to demonstrate greater commitment and ‘give back’ to the organisations they are a part of. Most importantly from my perspective, the research suggested that occupational anxiety and stress could be directly reduced.

Using the tool

By definition, FWA is defined as “the opportunity of workers to make choices influencing when, where, and for how long they engage in work-related tasks.”

When do people start work? Leave? How many days do they work? How much holiday do they have? Where do they work?

I cannot deny that flexible working creates challenges for business. Teams have to work together in new ways where connectivity and communication are critically important.

Even more so, there must also be trust and respect. All easy to write, often hard to establish and maintain in practice.

On balance, I believe that offering the very best levels of flexibility engenders a higher-performing culture. Great people know what’s required of them and they will deliver it – or more – if you empower them with all the right tools, including control of how and when they work.

Tips for implementation

  1. Do set some clear parameters for flexible working so that everyone knows how they use it
  2. Make sure that the ways to communicate – about things like attendance and availability – are agreed upfront
  3. Be consistent across teams so that the practices are fair
  4. Experiment, accepting that some things will work for you, and some won’t
  5. Lead by example. If you’re pulling long hours behind the desk and no demonstrating flexibility for yourself, your teams may well mimic behaviours
  6. Ensure that everyone knows how to use the tools that enable flexible, distributed working, for example, Dropbox, Asana, Skype or Slack
  7. Make sure everyone in the team is made to feel an equal part of the team, regardless of work practice

The tool in practice

I am very fortunate to have been employed in creative industries all my adult life. As such, I have been afforded high levels of flexibility – despite also experiencing long hours in agencies.

In our own business, we are proud of the degree of flexibility within which we operate, and it’s applied fairly – from founders to staff. I have written about the culture we enjoy as a result, here.

Flexible work is proven to be one of the most powerful business tools to engender high performance. It’s also one of the most complicated to use. However, people are complex variables and if you don’t accept this, you might set such rigid practices, processes and procedures in place – and demonstrate behaviours – that failures are almost inevitable or hard wired into your culture.

Being flexible affords people one thing that they often value over and above anything else; time.

Tool Seven-Time

My observation of current corporate cultures is that many are very highly strung, frenetic, rushing and constantly pushed to accelerate. It’s also my experience that change – in performance – can take time. Big leaps in improvement are often predicated on many tiny incremental steps. It’s the age-old tug o’ war between ‘continuous improvement’ vs. ‘transformation.’ Wanting high performance and simply demanding it doesn’t mean it’s achieved in practice.

Using the tool

Changing cultures is a long game, not an overnight quick fix.

Guinness famously said, “good things come to those that wait,” although I’m not talking about procrastination here. I’m talking about learning to let a high-performance culture develop over time; affording people time to develop (mental) muscle memory and giving ideas – and their execution – oxygen.

Tips for implementation

  1. Clearly articulate the goals and measures for high performance
  2. Set realistic timeframes for review – goals never get hit immediately
  3. Communicate progress regularly and celebrate the incremental successes on the journey to higher performance as much as focusing on the destination. If you don’t you will suffer performance fatigue
  4. When you review the goals and measures, assess what is changing and give plenty of time to consider the why
  5. Be prepared to course correct when a strategy is ‘in flight.’ Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Chief of Staff of the Prussian army, once said: “No strategy survives contact with the enemy.”

The tool in practice

To think something is changing or done is not the same as it being different and done. I have implemented many ideas and seen them fail because I have not given them time, oxygen or care. I have often said, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” especially at SEVEN FEET APART and yet, ‘gone off’ too quickly. Just as in the endurance sports that I take part in, the behaviour can cause short term disillusionment and longer-term injuries. I’m still learning. Learning to be patient, learning to stay constant and consistent. Learning to breathe.

In closing

You have a culture whatever you do. It’s a bi-product of procedures, processes and behaviours. Nevertheless, you should invest in it heavily. For me, this certainly doesn’t mean employing a single Chief Culture Officer. It means making everyone in your business one, including you.

Also published on Medium.

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