“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” – Peter Drucker

Our ‘normal’ culture

When I started working at ramarketing about 15 months ago, protecting the culture of the business was one of my top priorities. As our founder headed to the US, it was clear that bringing in a brand new leader came with some risk – let’s face it, even the best interview can’t always uncover the actionable leadership style of a person, nor can it expose the chemistry a leader might build with a team.

Thankfully, despite healthy growth and a number of new recruits, our recent team survey demonstrated that the culture and core values remain largely intact (as culture can sometimes shift as new personalities change the group dynamic).

Fast forward to April 2020 and for many of us who work in offices, we’ve found ourselves physically separated from our colleagues. Although the number of remote team members has increased as ramarketing has grown, I’ll be the first to admit that we haven’t been great with remoteness in the past. Now, like many others, our entire team is remote and we’ve had to adapt quickly.

ramarketing is a community; it doesn’t stand on ceremony and the fact that no one is too big to do the little things (like empty the bin) is constantly reinforced within our business. That doesn’t mean there isn’t control at a business level but day to day, we all muck in. Leadership is about engaging rather than telling. It’s about relationships and skills not job title and status.

Understanding the power of change

We’re into week four of lockdown in the UK. There is so much ‘noise’ about what’s going on out there… and most countries are doing all they can to flatten the curve, support businesses (both employed and self employed) and help our front line workers. In the grand scheme of things, we’re lucky. We can still go out, exercise, speak to others (albeit virtually) and do our best to stay safe.

But human beings generally crave human contact – we perceive so much from body language, micro expressions, smell and energy from others. We also follow leaders partly through their physical presence, which is probably one of the hardest things to do remotely, and can’t just be assumed. Then, you have the added challenge of uncertainty. When will this end? Will I get sick? How will I pay my bills? Are my family OK? Will my company remain in business? The concerns are many and real. And in some cases, reassurance can’t be given.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a British medic who is now working at Harvard Medical School. We chatted about many things, but what was most interesting were her thoughts about our ability to cope with uncertainty and how that links with success in your chosen field.

As an example, our education system in the UK is structured to teach based on definitive answers (right or wrong). Science and medicine are nebulous – some things are black and white but most things require application of the years of study to come up with the most sensible answer. This is a potential cause of burnout in medicine, particularly amongst the more junior doctors.

We are all wired with a desire to know the answer. Here we are now, not knowing. Leadership is filled with uncertainty – in fact a leader’s role is often to try and shield people from uncertainty (within reason).

Back to the here and now.

Keeping the culture alive

When this all happened, we had to make our culture work entirely remotely. The first week or so was a haze of novelty and laughter. We started frequent catch ups with both our UK and US team and we hosted our first virtual vino where we all shared a glass of wine during a video call.

As we have progressed the novelty has worn off but we’ve maintained the contact; as a team we are ensuring no one person is too isolated from the rest. The reasons to laugh have continued and we are currently in the middle of a virtual “through the keyhole” competition. We’re planning a ramarketing roast (two people asking quick fire questions) and we have a second virtual vino planned. All of this as well as delivering and supporting a client base that is also going through the same experience. And in many cases having to change direction very quickly.

COVID-19 has also presented us with an opportunity to check and question what we did before. How do we adapt? Have we just applied the same principles to a new situation or have we thought about our interactions and our leadership approach. Have we made our team’s lives better? I have already learned so much from this experience. We all need to feel part of something and the daily catch ups or ad hoc gatherings help create that. Our head of delivery (who only started on the 2nd March) has brought new initiatives and approaches to the company that are changing the way we see our work. We also celebrate our successes on a weekly basis. All now done remotely.

Reflect and adapt

For me this experience is refining my own leadership style (and definitely improving my writing skills!) – I can still watch the behaviour of others and register those small things that might be a concern; being too direct or hiding something challenging with laughter. But I also know my “presence” is important, so I am ensuring I am accessible…on calls, on Slack, wherever I am needed. We cannot resolve the uncertainty but what we can all do is make this strange journey as positive as possible, we can protect our livelihoods and hope to come out of this better for it.

Back to the Peter Drucker quote I started with – culture remains a top priority and with that comes communication, honesty, openness, consistency, flexibility, good data, calmness and being human. This is a business, but it’s about people and people need to be front and centre now more than ever before.

P.S I am already planning the return to the office party – I never thought that would be a thing!