How to Build, Maintain and Scale a Strong Culture—According to Kristin Graham
March 23, 2021
Culture can make or break a company—especially in the tech industry, where competition for the best and brightest is fierce.
And it’s particularly important during a pandemic when unprecedented circumstances and challenges are wreaking havoc on business as usual.
There’s also a direct impact on employee engagement, which is a key indicator of a healthy company culture. A Gallup poll reported that June 2020 saw the most considerable drop in US employee engagement on record (more so than during the 2008 recession or after 9/11).
Culture helps a company define itself, attract the right team members and customers, and differentiate in the marketplace. It’s the “why” behind the mission and the glue that holds everyone together in good times and bad.
Culture is also tricky because there’s no one-size-fits-all way to define, cultivate or scale it. Ask 10 people to define culture, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. And because culture is so tough to nail down, it can be difficult to create and maintain unless you have a firm grasp of both the big-picture strategy and the day-to-day nuances.
“Really effective culture is a kaleidoscope, not a photograph.”
Kristin Graham is someone who fully understands all the ins and outs of company culture. She’s spent five years as Amazon’s Principal of Culture and Communications, and prior to that she served in similar roles at other household-name organizations.
Whether you’re just starting to build your company’s culture or you think it might be time for a realignment, Kristin has some incredibly helpful tips.
Culture defined. Sort of.
The first step in getting culture right is understanding what it is and what it isn’t. Hint: It’s not inspirational posters of kittens hanging onto tree branches, mouse pads with the company logo, or the copy an agency wrote for your company’s About page.
It’s not having a foosball table and fully stocked snack cabinet, either.
There’s nothing wrong with posters, mouse pads (who even uses these anymore?), or snacks; they just aren’t what makes company culture.
Kristin’s view is that culture is a living, breathing part of an organization—not something to check off your to-do list. “How often have you seen a company take weeks to develop a mission statement, and then they frame it and hang it on the wall, and that’s it?” she asked. “It’s as if you decided to get married, said the vows and then you announced you had ‘completed’ the marriage. That’s not how that works.”
“Culture isn’t inspirational posters of kittens hanging onto tree branches, mouse pads with the company logo, or the copy an agency wrote for your company’s About page.”
Your culture needs to evolve with your organization. Amazon, for instance, has 14 leadership principles, but the company has revisited and revised them multiple times over the years to ensure they’re still relevant.
Perhaps more importantly, culture isn’t something that can be mandated from on high. “Like communications, culture belongs to the people,” Kristin explained. “You can’t hang it on an individual or a department or even the C-suite. While an individual or a group might get the ball rolling, culture matures and evolves through the way people experience it in a daily dialog. It’s less about what you say at the beginning than about how what you say translates into real-life experiences over the long haul.”
Strong cultures start with good listening
I’ve been called a “culture carrier” more than once, so I took the opportunity to ask Kristin what that means to her. In general terms, a culture carrier is usually thought of as someone who knows a company’s culture inside and out not only in terms of what it is, but also why it is what it is. Culture carriers are natural ambassadors and evangelists for their companies.
Kristin’s first piece of advice for culture carriers is to make sure you’re holding up a mirror, not a spotlight. “To effectively drive culture, you need to listen more than you speak,” she said. “It’s not about you. It’s about reflecting back what you hear.”
It’s also about keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s happening. This might take the form of employee surveys, chat rooms, town halls, reviews on Glassdoor and LinkedIn, and other forums.
“To effectively drive culture, you need to listen more than you speak.”
“Every day, our teams are sending signals out, internally and externally,” Kristin said. “The culture carrier’s job is to pay attention to those signals—to receive that information and decide what to do about it.”
“A lot of culture is about engaging hearts and minds,” Kristin added. And that means tuning in and really hearing what people are saying, thinking, and feeling so that you know what they want and need.
Small details make a big difference
Listening is a critical part of the big picture, but what about managing culture on a day-to-day basis? When you start to break things down, it can quickly get pretty complex.
“Really effective culture is a kaleidoscope, not a photograph,” Kristin said. “When you look around at what’s happening in the world right now, it becomes clear that while I might be called a culture carrier, I can’t—for instance—reflect back the experience a person of color might be having coming into work during global protests.”
Creating and sustaining culture successfully is a balancing act between setting boundaries and leaving room for culture to adapt and shift according to our shared reality and growth—both personal and corporate.
Many people define culture as what you will hire and fire over, which makes a lot of sense in terms of putting your money where your mouth—or your culture—is.
“You can have a strong culture with all the right accoutrements, but if you allow the jerks to stay or reward them despite behavior that goes against the stated culture, you alter your culture’s DNA,” Kristin said. “Through your actions, you signal that even though ‘respect’ is one of your core cultural values, you’re willing to make an exception if, for instance, the offending employee gets results.”
As Kristin pointed out, backtracking on the promises of your culture strips it of any authenticity. It demotes your culture to that kitten poster hanging on the wall in the lunchroom.
“A strong culture gives people options. You can have principles and parameters without having to hand down mandates.”
Keeping your culture healthy and strong is also about small daily choices and interactions. Kristin used an example we can all relate to: the question of whether to turn on your video on Zoom calls.
“You’ve got your introverts and your extroverts,” she said. “If you stipulate that everyone be on screen, you’re forcing a culture that works for some, but not for all. A compromise might be to ask people who’d rather not be on screen to turn it on only when they want to ask a question or make a statement.”
Her point is that a strong culture is one that gives people options. You can have principles and parameters without having to hand down mandates.
“These may seem like small things,” Kristin added, “but each interaction contributes to the fingerprints of a culture.”
Get started with 3 ideas
“Originality can be great, but adaptation can be faster and more efficient,” said Kristin, alluding to her pragmatic approach to culture development. “Other people have already tackled these hard issues and challenges. You don’t need to exactly emulate what they’ve done—you still need to make your own footprint—but benchmarking against known successes and failures can save you a lot of time and trauma.”
1. Make space for conversations
Kristin recommends making intentional choices right from the start. Take the time to be thorough and thoughtful. One good place to start: create space for the conversations that shape and strengthen culture.
“You want to create space for organic conversations,” she said. “And then you want to develop an effective cadence of formal communications.”
In Kristin’s experience, setting up a regular communication routine can earn you a lot of tolerance and grace from people, even when things get difficult.
“If you don’t have an answer, you still want to engage in the conversation,” she explained. “You may not be able to fix a problem, but you can acknowledge that it’s a burning issue that needs to be addressed.”
Kristin likens a reliable schedule of communication (briefings, town halls, etc.) to family dinners—they may not always serve every individual’s purpose, but they offer a consistent channel for ongoing dialog. And employees take comfort in knowing when the next communication touch point will be.
2. Make people feel special
In addition to actively listening, which we talked about earlier, Kristin also recommends looking for opportunities to connect with specific internal audiences in a way that makes them feel special.
“Never discount the cultural value of making someone feel special,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you need to be all things to all people. It just means you shouldn’t squander chances to build up the sense of an inner community and the mutual trust that grows out of that.”
One of the easiest ways to make people feel special is to let them in on things ahead of the general public. An example: Tell employees about a launch before you make the formal announcement. Even if you’re only sharing the news a few hours ahead of the press release, that can be enough to give people a sense of being in on the inside. They can then, in turn, become your best ambassadors.
“Never discount the cultural value of making someone feel special.”
Another example: If you’re going to implement a new company-wide holiday, preview it with managers before announcing it to all your employees and consider adding manager-specific Q&A in the preview. This helps the managers feel in-the-know and better positioned to support and amplify company news and direction.
Kristin also shared about “leader briefing calls” that she used to do after quarterly earnings meetings. “These calls weren’t to go over regulated information. There was no agenda, and no presentations,” she said. “It was just an opportunity to get the leaders together with the CEO, CFO and investor relations team to debrief. It helped everyone feel like they had access to the context and nuances beyond the press releases. More importantly, it equipped them to cascade that information consistently and accurately throughout the organization.”
Less gossip and guesswork—a sound strategy.
3. Establish a preboarding strategy
“Preboarding is a seriously underutilized sweet spot,” Kristin said. “New employees are most engaged when they’ve just made the decision to join your organization. This is when they’re most excited and likely to post about their new job on social media. A good preboarding strategy helps you amplify their enthusiasm while simultaneously feeding it.”
Kristin caveats that preboarding shouldn’t feel like homework. It’s not about trying to frontload a bunch of brand dynamics or role-specific information.
“Preboarding is all about getting them excited—especially in a remote environment,” she said. “You give them access to information before they even have access to your equipment. This revs up their engine while also reducing the amount of onboarding time by inviting them to participate in your culture ahead of their formal start date.”
Amazon’s Cloud (Amazon Web Services) division, for example, sends out new hire kits that include coffee mugs and t-shirts. It might seem a little superficial, but it really does help increase anticipation and create a sense of belonging and pride. However, great preboarding can be a note with a PDF attached. It’s about the effort being made.
Related read: Hiring a Remote Employee? Use This Onboarding Checklist
Amazon also has an onboarding buddy system that helps new recruits acclimate to the culture by providing a personal resource—their buddy—who can answer questions and deliver information in bite-sized pieces as needed.
The key to scaling your culture is curiosity
If your company is growing, you’ll want to know how to grow your culture alongside the business. As headcount increases and expansion takes you to different geographical regions and around the globe, there are a lot of details you need to account for and manage.
Kristin’s main piece of advice in this area is this: “You have to meet employees where they are and where their culture is. You have to be curious about everything, and you need to ask the right questions.”
She shared a story about expanding into India and addressing what might seem like a fairly benign cultural topic: providing free food for employees. Turned out that the situation was more complex than they originally thought, and very different from what they were used to in the US.
“It’s about giving people options within the context of shared values.”
“We realized we needed to feed employees twice because of the length of time it takes them to commute to the office,” Kristin recalled. “And we also had to coordinate a way to provide take-home boxes to use at the end of each meal because the perception of wasting food is culturally sensitive in India.”
As you might imagine, there’s no single right answer to any cultural question. This is why flexibility is key to building a successful culture.
“Choice is going to be the new currency in culture,” Kristin said. “It’s about giving people options within the context of shared values.” As an example, she cites the trend of moving from a traditional paid time off/sick leave model to a flex-time model that acknowledges an employee’s right to manage their time how they see fit.
Even with the best intentions, people make mistakes
I asked Kristin about the biggest mistakes she sees companies make when it comes to culture and communications. She had two to share.
1. Taking flexibility and choice too far
“Rules are love,” Kristin said. “If I allowed it, my teenagers would stay up on Xbox all night. Employees also need boundaries. They need to understand what’s expected.”
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kristin saw many companies make the mistake of just “taking the walls off.” With everyone working from home and under a lot of shared stress, leaders—with the best intentions—gave people too much leeway. Interestingly, the problems that developed from this situation weren’t about employees taking advantage or slacking off—they were about people failing to self regulate, leading to burnout.
Course corrections included things like establishing meeting-free time guidance such as eliminating end-of-day meetings and setting occasional Friday No-Meeting days so people could have some breathing room.
2. Talking more than listening
Speaking of breathing room, another area of challenge was an exponential increase in email communication. A recent survey from Campaign Manager showed a 31% increase in email volume since March 2020. This is partially due to less interpersonal communication, but also because companies overcompensated on digital messages after the switch to a remote work model.
“We spend more than a third of our day on email,” Kristin said. “And then we’re sending out newsletters and podcasts and everyone is overwhelmed. People need space and grace. They need to be able to get off their email.”
At the end of the day, we’re all in this together
Building a strong and effective culture is no easy feat, but my conversation with Kristin showed me just how powerful even seemingly small decisions and gestures can be. As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked if she had any additional nuggets of wisdom to share. She had three.
1. Make leaders downloadable
“You don’t need long emails from company leaders,” Kristin said. “Quick updates work great—two or three minutes that can be downloaded. I’m also seeing a lot of companies have success by pivoting from town halls to podcasts because a podcast is more accessible and convenient to, say, someone who is out walking their dog. Going forward, putting content from company leaders into multiple mediums will be key for reach and engagement.”
2. Empower people managers
“People managers make or break culture. We tend to focus on the bookends when it comes to culture—the leaders who create it and the people who experience it—but the people managers in the middle are a really undervalued cultural resource,” she explained. “They don’t have to be culture carriers themselves, but they need the tools and access to support their own development and the development of their teams. This might be articles about how to be a good remote manager or work-from-home tips to send to people. People managers are an important channel for your culture. Use them wisely.”
3. Try different things
“You’d be amazed at how much your employees can self-soothe and self-solve if you give them a platform on which to have conversations,” Kristin said. “At Amazon, we have a successful initiative called ‘Circles’ that has a tenured Amazonian host a conversation with five to seven other people. Coming out of these conversations, those five to seven people become culture carriers across the rest of the organization. It’s proven to be an excellent way to encourage and support mentorship that scales.”
“Engage your people in the creation and care of your culture. Invite them to participate.”
My take on these three bits of wisdom from someone who has been doing this for a long time? Engage your people in the creation and care of your culture. Invite them to participate. Make sure that what you’re sharing is easily accessible and designed for consumption on their terms. Don’t feel like you have to carry the full weight of culture on your own.
After all, if culture isn’t about how we’re all in this together, I don’t know what it’s about.
Editor’s note: This was originally published in September 2020 and updated in March 2020.