Evolving Old-School Tech Cultures into Modern Power Players.

Depending on your viewpoint, humanity either reaps enormous benefits or suffers incurable harm at the hands of the world’s top tech teams. The likes of Goggle, Apple, and Netflix arguably have some of the best, most driven and innovative tech teams in the world. They influence how we communicate, work, play, travel, learn, love and just about everything in-between. What they have in common – other than total world domination – is high engagement and strong culture.

Not every business or organization can – or wants – to mirror these mega players, but most do want to develop a thriving tech team, which can deliver strong enterprise support, excellent products and innovative ideas.

Sadly, for many traditional businesses or legacy companies, there’s a long way to go.

Walk into almost any Wall Street temple of finance or midtown power-player and what you’re likely to discover is a tech team that more closely resembles the barracks of a North Korean army camp than that of a flourishing idea factory. Silent rows of bowed heads, solemn faces, gray walls and ill-fitting suits are key indicators of a failing tech team. Few will succeed in writing the best code of their life in such a dismal environment – let alone conceive of anything marvelous or new.

Influencing Tech culture starts at the very top and executive leadership must be its foremost champion. However, leaders cannot be solely responsible for cultural development, execution or evolution. In fact they should not be. Instead, tech executives should empower a central, governing body – a culture squad – to tackle real issues and develop an authentic, employee-driven culture.

Identifying Culture Squad Participants: Open up the squad to volunteers, inviting potential participants to complete a short application form asking why they wish to participate. Identify people within the organization who already embody the culture you’re hoping to create and encourage them to apply. They will likely be key drivers of the future squad. Vote on applicants by committee to help ensure the process is fair, and make a pointed effort to include a diverse mix of employees from all areas and levels of the department.

Welcome the group & set up the basics: Create an official welcome – ideally a lunch or similar to help the group get to know each other and bond. In the first session, have the group share why they volunteered, agree on a meeting schedule and identify a communication channel, i.e. Slack or email list etc. In successive meetings, senior leaders may stop by to thank them for their time and participation, and outline what they hope the group will achieve – but let them bond first, the culture squad needs to feel autonomous.

Task them with something real: Invite the group to identify their main goals and purpose. Successful squads that make impactful changes typically select both hard and soft culture goals, such as increasing transparency across the organization and leading social activities. In this way they serve as both liaisons between employees and executives, but also as ambassadors and agents of change among their peers.

Make it clear that all voices within tech matter: Start with a survey. Internal Communications and HR people are crucial partners in helping to craft and shape the tone and content of a survey. It should be clear that responses are absolutely anonymous, and avoid making the survey itself excessively long or repetitive. Also, at the top of the survey, establish the purpose of the survey, why you want to hear from employees and how the results will be used and shared. If you have regular team meetings or communication channels, share this information in advance, so when employees receive the survey, they are already primed to participate. The survey itself should cover topics that are important to tech employees, such as:

  • Communication: With their manager, team and the broader organization.
  • Empowerment: How do individuals contribute, raise issues and express opinions?
  • Feedback: How do they give and receive it? Sense of community. Identify what’s working and where there’s tension.
  • Open format: Leave space for additional comments, observations and ideas. Even if your survey isn’t perfect, opportunities for open responses help identify where the real issues lie, and may highlight areas and issues you hadn’t considered.

After the results are shared with the executive team, a vetted presentation – with as much truth as your organization can tolerate – should be given to the culture squad. Invite them to review and identify key themes and three specific areas of opportunity. Their 6-month/1-year plan should be designed around addressing these issues. Operationally, have internal Culture leaders head up each of the three improvement areas, and ask the rest of the squad divide themselves among the three teams.

Social events: Tech leaders should always attend events hosted by the culture squad in their locality. Leaders set the example for the rest of the team, and if they leave early, skip out, ridicule or in any way undermine social events, it won’t work. If the timing is right and your CTO and other leaders can attend events at hub or regional offices, even better – there’s no replacement for face time.

Global teams: Global teams would do well to align events to happen on similar days or within the same window of time to optimize a sense of unity. Culture squad members should exist in as many offices as possible to lead and adjust events and communications to suit the specific needs of each locality.

Culture squad promotion & communications: Identify communication channels – newsletters, Town Halls, meetings – where the culture squad can regularly share progress updates on their three key areas of focus from the survey. When appropriate, senior tech leadership should recognize the squad’s contributions and individuals who have gone above and beyond.