Corporate Culture:
The Antidote

How can you capture the soul of a company in a few PowerPoint slides?

Words by

Rüdiger Barth, Head of Talent & Culture LOOPING GROUP LINKEDIN
Elisabeth Blum, Director of Talent & Culture LOOPING GROUP LINKEDIN

Illustration by

Ha My Le Thi, Junior Designer LOOPING GROUP INSTAGRAM
14.04.2022 7 MINUTE READ

In a nutshell:

  • Many employees see their company's canon of values as a nice attempt at best, but often enough as a fig leaf for the management.

  • But in an age of home office, pandemics and an ailing labour market, companies urgently need a new magnetism that can only come from culture.

  • From bullshit bingo to a living culture: What we at LOOPING GROUP have learned while developing our own culture deck.

Let's begin with “Frozen”. One doesn't have to like Disney or musicals, but anyone who knows the two films will agree with us: They are masterpieces. The man responsible is Ed Catmull, once founder of Pixar Studios, later president of Disney Studios. What is his recipe for success? “Every one of our films is really bad on the first try,” says Catmull. “Frozen was a disaster. It’s all about feedback.”

It’s all about feedback. A deceptively simple sentence. But like everyone who works in the business of storytelling, we know the explosive power it holds: creatives work best when they don't perceive criticism of their work as hurtful, when they can express wild ideas without worrying about embarrassing themselves, in short: when the team trusts each other. This trust is based on the way the people in this group treat each other. In other words, in their culture.

“This place is close to blowing up in our faces”

For companies struggling to prevail in a fiercely competitive market, culture has always been a critical factor for success. But it has never been as difficult as it is today to keep spirits high. The pandemic has been going on for over two years now. The lives of many people have changed fundamentally, some companies have remained in the home office since March 2020. We at LOOPING GROUP often talk to clients these days about how their company is doing in terms of staff morale. The answers are clear. “This place is close to blowing up in our faces,” the CEO of a medium-sized company answered. Even before Corona, many companies found it difficult to keep their best people and attract talent in an overheated labour market.

We at Looping also feel the growing centrifugal forces. What can we do to counter them, when benefits, yoga classes and happy hours hardly make a difference any more? What is needed is an elevated force of gravity that can only come from culture. A force that makes it tangible for all employees in a company what “we” are all about. Who “we” are. How “we” deal with each other. And above all: where “we” want to go.

From fig leaf to a living culture

It has long been understood in HR departments that employees who enjoy working for a company are more productive, innovative and driven than others. The American business blogger David Cummings says: “Corporate culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage that an entrepreneur can fully control.” And the US economist Peter Drucker put it nonchalantly: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Cultural initiatives have thus existed in many companies for years. Melodious words are easy to find. The Sunday speeches, the colourful brochures, the stylish screen savers are legion.

The principle isn’t new.

What’s new is the urgency to really live the culture. And that's where the problem begins.

Let's not fool ourselves: Many employees – especially if they themselves work in marketing – consider their company's canon of values to be primarily bullshit bingo. As a fig leaf for the management. At best, as a nice attempt. At worst, a malicious misdirection. At the US energy company Enron, before the epic home-made scandal broke, the values were written on the walls of the headquarters: Integrity, Communication, Respect and Excellence. 

The most important document ever to come out of Silicon Valley

A vibrant corporate culture shapes the behaviour of managers and employees. It takes into account that occasional employee engagement is no longer enough, that a sustainable employee experience is needed. Everyone knows what is expected of them – and also what they themselves can expect.

In 2009, the streaming provider Netflix put its Culture Deck online. 125 rather ugly PowerPoint slides. It was the PDF that Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg would call years later “possibly the most important document ever to come out of Silicon Valley.”

On the slides is the DNA of Netflix. It was conceived by the then head of HR, Patty McCord, and is imbued with the guiding principles of CEO Reed Hastings. It says, for example: “We are a team, not a family. A team of professionals, not a team of children. We hire smart, we promote smart, we fire smart. We want stars in every position.”

Anyone who has read The Deck would love to start working for Netflix immediately – or swear never to do so. It is highly ambitious and decidedly cool, thoroughly American, cynical in some aspects. But it radiates the spirit of this company: absolute freedom, absolute dedication, absolute pursuit of quality. In just a few sentences, a coherent world with a magnetic effect is outlined here.

As it is with magnets: they repel. Or they attract.

The art of building a corporate culture is, of course, to attract the right people, and to put off the right ones. But how do you recognise the right employee? How is the precise recruiting possible that Amazon boss Jeff Bezos propagates? “I would rather interview 50 people in vain and not hire any than hire the wrong one.”

The Netflix Culture Deck got human resources departments around the world thinking (and putting them under pressure), it provided material for several books – particularly worth reading is the insider report by business journalist Erin Meyer (“No Rules Rules”), who initially found the deck “hypermasculine, overly confrontational and downright aggressive”.

Excerpt from the LOOPING GROUP Culture Deck:

Magic is our profession

And we believe that magic happens when we work together across disciplines.

In February 2021, a turbulent development began for the LOOPING GROUP – which continues to this day. During this time, our team has grown from 110 to around 250 employees. So it was one year ago that we decided to write our own culture deck. Five years after the company was founded, a kind of agreement had emerged on what the culture of Looping could be, but it wasn't clearly defined, nor could it be communicated quickly. In view of the onboarding of more and more new colleagues, we needed this deck in order not to lose ourselves.

How can you capture the soul of a company in a few PowerPoint slides?

The goal was set. And there are enough first-class authors in our team. But no one knew the right process yet. The deck also had to be born in the field of tension between the (few) specifications of the founders and the (diverse) ideas of the loopers. If it was not only to be accepted, but truly embraced, something had to emerge at the end that would be perceived as the soul of our company.

That's how deep a corporate culture has to dig to establish credibility – the questions of our time are too big for that. Many young people today expect to do something meaningful in their work. How can we attract them? And how can we bring along workers who have been with us for a long time? How can a uniform management style be lived in times of physically fragmented units? How can trust be built at a distance? How can a culture thrive?

The culture deck was meant to define our values and rules of the game, but also to specify measures that would make the document effective in daily routine. The result should be something that we call – at best slightly ironically – “constitution”: a binding code of conduct that all employees can refer to. An ideal to which we are committed with all consistency. “Culture is a journey,” it says, “and we walk the path together.”

No one is bigger than the team

A brilliant, yet toxic colleague will not prosper here.

In the summer of 2020, we had launched the Young Leaders Programme, and now we decided to entrust the project to these seven colleagues. They got started. And first of all they demanded answers from the Looping leadership: What are the crucial values that should make us stand out from the competition, hold our company together internally - and drive our business? Then the decisive phase began: we asked the staff. In consultation with the Talent & Culture team, the Young Leaders designed a survey that went out to all Loopers. The response rate was 76%.

Many of the results were encouraging. Some, on the other hand, were painful – for example, they documented the need to catch up on gender equality issues. All of them were shown to the team, regardless of sensitivities. On this basis, the Young Leaders finally set out to find words for what makes the LOOPING GROUP tick. They discussed, they wrote, they discarded, they refined. Many slides were created. Concentrated sentences on them.

Guidelines for leadership. Commitments to diversity, solidarity, the performance principle, freedom of thought. These thoughts should be catchy, not interchangeable. Close to our time, but timelessly valid. Powerful, but not forceful. Succinct, but unambiguous.

The Culture Deck grew and grew. And one day something happened while reading the draft. A voice began to be heard that had not been heard before.

There was a pulse.

Illustration by Ha My Le Thi, Junior Designer LOOPING GROUP

We believe that bravery originates from freedom

Freedom to believe in the unseen. Freedom to pursue the unheard of.

The finished document was presented to the C-suite last autumn. Of course, as it always goes, two feedback loops followed – it's all about feedback – then the document was presented to the team. The response, it's fair to say, was very gratifying. “I wouldn't have thought that such a paltry PDF could develop so much power,” wrote a previously sceptical colleague, “it will really move us forward.”

From manifesto to practice

After the presentation, it was time to weave the deck into everyday life. We introduced the “Feedback Loop”, which closely links the half-yearly performance reviews with the Culture Deck. For this purpose, we developed skill sets that specifically describe for each discipline what we expect from staff at all levels. In this way, the deck inspires all personnel decisions we make.

We feel the effect most strongly in recruiting: young applicants in particular ask about our culture of their own accord – with the Culture Deck we can show them our rules for working together, which attract or deter them. An essential part of this is our commitment to diversity.

We rejoice in the Diversity of our teams. For us diversity is the source of creativity

For the set-up of our new office in London, we found an ideal partner for this: Hidden. With their approach of bias-free recruiting – name, age and personality traits are omitted for the initial screening of applications – diversity and anti-discrimination workshops for all Loopers and their access to new networks, they helped us strengthen diversity in our teams.

Yes, a culture changes with the people who live it. And so our Culture Deck will evolve too. For now, it acts as an antidote for us in a poisoned time.

By the way, one of the slides of the deck shows the aspiration that drives us:

We strive to deliver world class work

The page ends with a short phrase. It’s all about feedback.

About the authors

Rüdiger Barth is Co-Founder of LOOPING GROUP and Head of Talent & Culture based in Hamburg. The historian worked for 15 years at the magazine “stern”, most recently as author and managing editor/member of the editor-in-chief, after which he went on to become editor-in-chief of the science magazine P.M. As a novelist, Barth most recently published “Die Totengräber” (The Gravediggers) about the end of the Weimar Republic (with Hauke Friederichs, nine licensed editions in the UK, USA, China, among others) and the novel “Das Haifischhaus” (The House of Sharks), which is being adapted as a TV series in LOOPING GROUP's Writer's Room.

Elisabeth Blum is Director of Talent & Culture based in London, responsible for LOOPING GROUP's UK team and office set-up, as well as companywide employee engagement, culture and diversity initiatives. Previously, after studying at Oxford Brookes, the Potsdam native was active in human resource management at Aqua Restaurant Group and most recently at Soho House's private members clubs.

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