In today’s episode:
- The impact of company culture on a business
- The evolution of company culture in a globalizing world
- Balancing company culture in hybrid and remote environments
- Building trust and driving change in modern business
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Lukasz: In this episode, we have our very first guest, Dirk Arts, who is the founder and CEO of 24/7, Poland's leading independent PR firm for over 20 years. We will discuss the value of company culture, how to shape it at your organization and how to enable all of your employees to cultivate it in their daily work. Dear listeners, allow me to welcome my longtime friend. Dirk, welcome to the show.
Dirk: Hello, hi Lukasz, thank you for having me and thank you for having me about this very interesting topic, which is indeed very close to my heart.
L: Cool. So to start our conversation, I noticed how you picked your banner on LinkedIn, Dirk, where it says Earn Trust and Drive Change. It's very powerful. Can you tell us a bit more about how these things came to be for you and your team?
D: Sure, actually, the trust issue is very close to our company's purpose. We started the process two years ago of scaling-up and everyone was working on a scaling-up process or relooking or re-anchoring the company very quickly ends up with the purpose, values, mission, vision, all that area. We did the same. We are a public relations firm, PR firm, communications firm. When you think about public relations and once again, I repeat that public relations basically is about building relations with the public as we know and many people know, relations are very much around trust. Being able to trust people builds relations. So what we have developed with the team together, a leadership team, is not a new but basically evolving purpose of our company, which is to help our clients to earn trust so they can drive the change. Because when companies are trusted it's much easier to drive change. If you're not trusted, it's much more difficult. So that whole purpose has been captured in a slogan that we now use as a tagline of our company, which is called Earn Trust, Drive Change.
L: That's a really cool background story for it as well. Thanks for sharing. When you speak of company culture, what does it mean to you personally?
D: How long do we have for this podcast? Because it's something I could talk about for hours. It's not an easy question, but it's fascinating.
D: Company culture is something, it’s like a DNA of a person. It's like asking what's the character of a person? You can try to describe that. The character of a person defines a lot of what this person does, how he or she behaves, stands in life, interacts with others, etc. For a company, that's the same, but that's much more complex because as a person, you're one. As a company, you are 10, 40, 100 000, and you try to have all those people acting and behaving in a certain way, according to a certain character, and I think that it's something extremely, extremely powerful. What it means for me, because that was the question, I think it's one of the absolutely most essential things to get straight in your company before you can start thinking about business, sales, growing, scaling up anything. If your culture is not okay, if your culture is not in check, it's actually difficult to do anything.
L: I strongly agree with it. But it also brings me to my second part of that question, or second question to that question is what is the impact of that culture on a business actually on a daily basis, or or its activities on its existence? How would you describe that?
D: Well, I want to have a small side story that maybe explains it a little bit. My wife is in politics and in politics you have, almost per definition you have people looking to the left and people looking to the right. So basically, if you are in the middle and you try to organize that, you’re pulled to the right by people who are thinking in that way and you’re pulled to the left by people who are thinking in that way.
D: And that makes it very difficult because you’re pulled to the both sides and you try to keep everybody happy and try to achieve something. If everybody looks in the same direction or thinks a little bit in the same way, that helps a lot in achieving things. So, even in a company, everyone doesn't have to think the same, definitely not politically, but they have to somehow have certain same values of life and you can have completely different opinions about who you support as a soccer team, who you support as a politician, which music you listen to. That's all fine, as long as your value is in your way of behavior is somehow the same. That makes work much, much easier.
L: Okay, and is this something that helps companies nowadays attract talents?
D: I'm not sure if it helps to attract talents. To a certain extent, yes, because companies are, of course, they are very communicative and explaining who they are. Are they more laid back, easygoing? Are they very performance-oriented? Are they very business-oriented? Do they have big bonuses and that you, if you work very hard, you can get big bonuses, or do they have a different culture so that attracts certain, certain, certain people? And I think culture is more about keeping the people than about attracting the people.
D: I think it's super important to get the right people in the firm and if you have the right culture and the culture keeps them there for a longer time.
L: The reason why I ask this is because I wonder if, for instance, for someone who applies and they have a choice between company A and company B, and let's say, all the salary and other benefits are the same, do you feel like ground up from employee side it's important to them to work in a company which is dear to them in terms of values as well? Close to them in values?
D: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean. I think more than ever before. You mentioned that if the salary and the conditions of things are the same, I would even put it stronger, if there's a company that pays less but you have more affinity with their values and you feel you belong there, you might choose the company which pays slightly less for the same job, but you feel that's your place. So this is absolutely a very important thing. That reminds me of one thing we do in our company. We are a public relations firm, as I mentioned, about 80 people on the team, so quite often we have hirings. And one thing we do, because it's so important to get the right people on board, is to send candidates a culture book. We have a culture book in the company. A culture book is basically a booklet that tries to make an effort to describe which culture we have, very straightforward. So we send it to candidates, and ask them to look at it and when they come to the interview, we talk about it. So we feel also how much they connect to us through that and we basically are very open about it. We say, well, if this booklet resonates with you, you're at the right place, if you wonder why we write certain things, you might be better off with another company which better fits your culture.
L: Fair, fair, and you do it when, when they apply? Or when…
D: Yes, very early in the process. So, of course, people get the culture book when they get on board. You know, onboarding, etc, obviously, but already before that stage we do that. I mean, finally, getting the right people, in the sense of culture, on board is super essential. So I even dare to say that for me, culture and values are more important than qualifications. If I would have a person with slightly less qualifications, because qualifications you can train, you can train people, you can educate people, you can, you can grow together in the area. But you cannot change culture or values or how people stand in life.
L: Absolutely, Absolutely. Actually I feel very strongly about this as well. Same direction. So yeah, thank you for mentioning this. So, so far, we mentioned the culture from the perspective of your company. It's inwards, right inside, and your own hiring process. But do you feel there are other benefits going outward, for your customers, for your clients?
D: I had lunch three days ago in a new restaurant together with one of our main clients, the PR director of a large firm in Poland, and we had lunch, and we were talking and, of course, I was asking how she feels about the team, how she feels about the work, are we going on track anything to mention, and so on, like a typical conversation I do at the moment and she was praising so much our team, not only because of the qualifications and the dedication we have, passion, but also about their transparency and their openness and the fact that they are bringing up issues or problems if they appear, and not trying to hide them.
D: So, such a culture that I stand for is seen and observed and appreciated by the clients a lot.
L: This is really amazing and great to hear. When you were starting this company decades ago, as I understand right.
D: Yes, 2001. That's twenty years ago.
L: Fantastic. Do you feel like the culture you had then and the culture you had along the way and the culture you have today is the same, or did it evolve? Did you plan for it to evolve this way?
D: Well, I think a culture is not so often something that I consciously plan because, finally, a culture is how people, first of all, how the leadership behaves, because finally, leadership sets the tone and finally how the whole team behaves, what you do or what you don't do, how you stand versus what, your stance versus certain issues. Obviously, when a company grows, when we started we were two or three people. Now we are over 80. That means that your company slowly evolves and also the culture evolves naturally. This is not something we consciously plan for. We’re never going to say, okay, we are already 50 people; let's sit together now and change our culture. That's not happening. It's something naturally that grows and at a certain moment, when you get more layers and a management layer and things automatically evolve. That's, I think, what happened with our culture. If I still may say something, what is not changing is the values. The values have always been the same in our company, not literally like exactly the words. I look back at them, but when I look back at what we have written down about 15 years ago slightly different wording, but they are exactly the same as they are today. So, values are not changing. Culture can evolve. That's how I see it.
L: It sounds almost like values are a bit of a compass and the direction you have set in place and the rest of the journey of how it actually happens with the natural evolution.
D: I think maybe also if we look at individuals, if you are young, if you are 15 years old, you have certain values that you stand for, but you do different things than when you are 30 or 35. But most of the time the values of a person are not changing. If you have a certain, if you are honest 15 years, you will be honest when you are 35, you are not getting dishonest or something and I think that's the same thing. But your interest or your activities, what you do, how active you are, or other things may change.
L: And can you tell me a bit more about those values and, for instance, what they used to be and what they are today? Just even the wording you mentioned that shifted, right. Yeah, so I have a bit of a better understanding.
D: I mean in the past I remember now I had a hard, but we had values like transparency and always a step ahead and a number of more of these. Then we had a certain moment, about four years ago, when my HR manager said to me: We need to work on values, we need to get this straight for our team so we can have it nicely presented to us. Okay, that's a great thing. So she worked on that with a lot of people in the company, workshops, and so on, and she came to, I think, in total, something like to see five times three, so around 15 words collected and grouped in five groups, and that we used for a while. But then about two years ago, I got into the whole scaling-up mindset and looked into that. I went to values workshops, several of them actually, it became very clear to me that values you should have three, maybe four straightforward, that are basically capturing your story, your story, and that's what we have done. We have translated those 15, actually narrow them down into three that we are using right now. These are always progress, always reliable, and always care. So basically it's about progress. That means being bold, out of your comfort zone, think out of the box, that whole area, and always reliable, because we are a service company, that means we are servicing our clients, that means they want to have a reliable company. They can always count on. The things are done, they are done on time. We do what we say, we say what we do. That's that area. And always care is about people, it's about planets, it's about our clients, it's about each other. And so those three we have now actually written on our coffee cups and on the wall and on our sweaters. So everywhere.
L: Wonderful, that's great. And for your yearly or whenever annual evaluation of your colleagues, employees and other co-workers, do you use those values to also calibrate with people when they are in their career path? Against those values or with those values, I would say?
D: Absolutely. Values are much more. I mean, they are written on our wall literally, as I said, but values are much more than writing on the wall or on a coffee cup. They should be alive in the company all the time, everywhere. You know that you have good values when people start using that among each other, when they say: hey, come on, what was that? Always progress, we need to, we need, we can do better here. Okay, when people start talking like that, you know that your values are alive and we're using them consciously in evaluations, appraisals, indeed. So on appraisal form, there are certain questions around that and that they wrap up on how much people are according to values, are working according to values, and sometimes it's, let's say, two are very much developed and one less. That's possible. We also use them in our recruitment consciously. We use them even in our annual awards. We have, at the Christmas party every year, awards for the best employees and so on, and these are also based on values. So we use them basically throughout the company.
L: When you say you have Christmas awards for values. What does that look like exactly? I'm really curious there.
D: Yeah, that's a very good question. We have had Christmas awards for a long time. It started about six, seven years ago, more or less, as a fun initiative from our people. The best pet lover of the year and the best dressed person of the year and so on. All right, and that's how it started, which we still have a number of those categories and it's fun. But we also wanted to give it a bit more meaning in those awards and we have now three awards one for always progress, one for always reliable and one for always care. So, we basically investigate throughout the certain process in the company which person is really reflecting, and there's always care, for example, mindset, and there's always people in the company who quickly come up as names, and then we have discussions about that and we reward it.
L: And there is a meaningful prize for it, or?
D: No, it's also fun how it started. It's called the Dirkis. My name is Dirk, so the team had the Oscars. They came with the Dirkis. It's not my invention but it depends on the team. They came with that many years ago and it comes together with the statue and the statue is a biker, so somebody on a bicycle, because I'm known in the company as a passionate cyclist. So they came up with the Dirkis, which is a statue, like when you have the Oscar, you have this famous Oscar statue, we have the famous Dirkis statue.
L: That's fantastic. Oh my God, this is fantastic.
D: Well, it's a fun element, but it's with a serious tone, and I like that. This is actually, as we speak, part of the culture, right? I mean, it's the way things are being done, it's the way things have grown and it became part of the culture of the company.
L: This is great. This is absolutely great. So what I want to segue to next is, assuming there are some entrepreneurs listening to us and they wonder about you know how to establish their own culture in the company, what would be the tips for them to give away, to try things and avoid certain pitfalls?
D: As I said, it's difficult to create a culture. A culture is being created and it is appearing by being yourself, by doing the things that you would normally do. That's how the culture evolves. Often, a culture derives from entrepreneurs.
L: It's like leading by example.
D: Lead by example, I mean, finally, most companies start from an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur has a certain drive, a certain value, a certain way, a certain character, and often that character from the entrepreneur becomes the source, the root of the company culture, and that's difficult to create. The entrepreneur is not going to behave differently in his company because he knows he has to behave in a certain way because the company culture is to be built. That's not going to happen.
L: Right, okay, so I totally get that. But how does that work when the scale is significantly bigger, like when you have those big corporations, fortune 500, do you think their culture evolves or their struggle with culture because employees and teams, people in the trenches doing day-to-day work behave differently than their management or act differently, or they have different local cultures, so to say?
D: Excellent question, excellent question and tons and tons of books around this topic, because that's one of the most difficult things is to have a company culture evolving as you grow. I now experience that on a micro-scale. I mean my company's only 90 people, 80 something, so it's not that big, but I already experienced that it's different than when you are 20 or 30 people, right? And can you imagine that you have a company which is not in one office but in 10 offices, in different countries, with many different hierarchies and levels, and all those people need to act and think in a certain way. It's extremely difficult to steer and manage that. Well, fortunately, as I mentioned, there is a lot of great knowledge, a lot of great knowledge around that, a lot of companies, consultancies around that will help you with that. And finally, I believe it is about consistency, about doing the right things right over a longer period of time, and then that derives a culture. You cannot change a culture from one to another moment. I think if companies are behaving over a longer period of time in a certain way, then that becomes so solid and so strong that it automatically creates the company culture worldwide.
L: This is great. I'm glad you mentioned geography because I wonder if, when companies are hiring from different cultural backgrounds and there's a lot of diversity there how do you feel this is empowering the culture? Or is it different because different values are, you know, in Europe, in Asia and the US really have different values as we grow up and we observe these things, do you feel that this can be unified in an organization on a global scale as a culture?
D: Yeah, I think that's possible. I work a lot with multinationals in my company. They have a global footprint and teams all over the world and often they also have, let's say, multi-cultural teams here in Poland which we work with. What you feel is that, of course, people are different and somebody who's born and raised in Australia has a different culture than somebody who's born and raised in China or in South Africa or in the US, obviously. But values are much more universal than we may think. If you have the right person with those values on board, then that culture will be created and, once again, you have different cultures and different habits, but as long as your DNA, your values, are alive, then you’ll create that culture.
L: Okay. So in the past few years, we had a situation that shook a lot of companies to its core and obviously, there was a pandemic, and there were also broad changes around the management style, work-life balance, the AI revolution, and so on. Quite a lot of changes. Do you think that the company culture should somehow be flexible and adapt to these changes as well, or should it be more stable and trend-proof?
D: I think what we have seen in the last years is actually very interesting. Many companies had a very stable, strong culture build up very carefully for many years and then all of a sudden there was a pandemic that let people work all of a sudden from home for one day to another and for a longer period of time. So it was a very serious test in many ways, of course, business-wise and many other areas, but also for culture, it has been a very big test because all of a sudden you're not any more together in one place and influencing each other and copying each other, but you all work from home and you see each other on the screen through a video call. So I think that has been an enormous test and I think many companies have struggled with it. Just to give an example, well it’s not and example, it’s a general trend we see, is that quite soon after COVID, actually during COVID and after COVID there was huge interest in hybrid work, letting people work from home. It works perfectly well, everything is fine and the people are close to home, you don't have to commute, they are with their families, the work has been done, etc. And now we see, actually in the last half year, one year, with tech companies, for a great example, the all people are called back to the office and it has a reason, to protect the company culture. I mean, it's one of the reasons. There are more reasons, of course. One of the reasons is to protect the company culture and to make sure that your people can work together and understand each other. So to answer your question. It's dynamic. A culture is dynamic and it will evolve and we will learn and test and experiment and come back, but that's also part of the culture actually, right?
L: Yes, that is the culture, Absolutely. I was just curious and what's your take? Just a quick off topic what's your take on hybrid and remote?
D: That's a very interesting story, interesting question and a bit confronting for me as well. Until COVID started, I was not a big fan of hybrid. At that moment, it was called remote work, work from home. We are in a quite traditional industry, public relations, working for corporations also quite traditional industry so there was not much work from home possibility. Then COVID came and all of a sudden you face yourself with everybody home and I discovered quite soon that actually things are moving, the work is being done, clients are paying the bills, people are basically happy at home, they connect, everything works well. So I quite much switched and said okay, in our company, you can work when you want, where you want and how you want. That was a slogan I used I still use. That means a lot of freedom of the workplace and work time. And now comes the twist. We're now about three years later and I discovered that it's good to have people in the office. It's good to have people are connecting, and not because I don't trust them or not because I don't think they do that work or anything like that, but I feel that people need to show that people are human beings. We need each other, we need connection and, I think working from home four or even five days per week on a certain moment will have a negative impact not only on the coaching but also on people. So I'm slowly changing a bit back and saying well, I would like to have everybody two days a week in the office. I think that's healthy and that we keep connected. Two days a week, it's 40% of the time in the office. It's enough to be connected and to feel that you are part of a team. It's enough to maintain the culture, in my opinion. So we're slowly heading back to that.
L: The reason why I ask is that, you know, remote-ness is a very dear topic of mine, personally, and since you know we're in IT it's been relatively easy to try this, even before COVID. But I was always fascinated by how businesses which not operate like this, especially in such a relationship, business like yours which is totally based on the fact that you meet people right your clients, their clients and all sort of different things that happen in between. I was totally, you know, fascinated by the fact that it worked out for companies which are not, you know, primarily working from the clouds, so to say, to start with. So it's great to hear, and I also partially agree with the topic of being hybrid and going back and meeting in the office. I also see the benefit of this. I certainly see a benefit of going out of home every now and then to refocus and change environment.
D: That's for sure, but it's also that raises me the question like can a company culture, let's say, on a certain moment go too far, right? I mean because, yes, we went very much hybrid and I love freedom. I love freedom for every employee. I trust them, I trust everyone in my company, so I'm fully okay, but at a certain moment, I feel that we actually went too far with this freedom, once again, not because I don't trust them, but because it has side effects that I didn't see coming. That I believe people are happier. I see how happy people are when they are seeing each other in the office, and I think this is more often needed than once every two weeks. So that is okay. It's also a learning process, in this case about hybrid work, but about the also different topics, and also that defines the culture. Right now I'm able to say to my team well, we had a fully hybrid policy before. We discovered that, this and this and this, and therefore, we’d like you to be two days per week in the office and being able to express that and to change that is also part of your culture. Basically, it's okay to come back on something.
L: Yeah. I agree. And how did they take it?
D: Well now, we’re in progress of that. For the moment it's still voluntary, but basically I’d like to get a bit more strict on that. That it's really like two days per week in the office or per team. So I think after the Christmas period which is always a difficult period, people are traveling and so on I think after that, we will be having a bit more, let's say, focus and strict policy on that.
L: Great, great. I certainly see the benefits of, you know, workshopping things in the office in person as well. And definitely what is important to me personally, where it correlates with me tremendously, is a clear separation of private and work environments. You know, like it's not even about work-life balance, it's just about that environment shapes my process of thinking and I think what you're aiming for here is that there is collaborative work. And then you have people who can work on, you know whichever environment they choose. If I got that right on their own, right? This is their principle.
D: Exactly why, even in that extent that we also allow people to have work-ations, for example, and so in that case it's a very conscious decision that someone is an option for two months and that's also okay. What I want to say with that is that things are very flexible. So I like to create a kind of base, and the base is like two days a week in the office, but if someone has a reason not to do that or wants to be much more or not, that's basically still an individual choice.
L: Okay, and it's a case-by-case basis.
L: Okay, so who manages that? HR?
D: Yeah, we have an HR team that is quite. I think basically, being flexible in having to tailor solutions for team members is something that is also a very strong thing. That's one funny thing in my company. Every year, a couple of times per year, we have dispatch, so everybody gets a certain small package at home. With Women's Day, for example, we have a book with our name date 24/7, 24 July, we have a present sent to people's homes, etc, and I decided that until we have a few hundred people, I make handwritten notes to everyone. That means every person in the company gets a home package with a handwritten note from me. With their name and their address, and I normally try to have some personalized message for everyone. And this is a lot of work and in the same time, this is part of our culture, of a personal approach, of taking respect for people, of taking this seriously, and for me, it's a very important thing. It creates a belonging, it creates a family feeling.
L: Absolutely. This is amazing to hear. I mean, I can imagine that people just start there, they get to know you, and then they receive personalized messages. This is very powerful, very, very cool. To unite people and to also connect with their leader and their founder. I find it fascinating. Thank you, I'm taking some notes here. We'll consider doing that as well, but my handwriting is terrible, so I don't know if anyone will be able to read this. Cool. Look with this. I am curious if you have some recommendations for you know, for starters, for people who are building their businesses, for people who are already advancing building their businesses and maybe scaling up them. What are the blogs? These podcasts or books that we could recommend or discuss here for them to pursue and investigate to enhance their culture.
D: Well, myself I went into a question reading, and well, first of all, around this topic of culture, there are a lot of books, so I can only share the ones that I basically picked and read.
L: Right. But what we like is there. I guess, if there are hundreds of books, obviously they will start repeating themselves at some point. What would you say are the top three or top five?
D: Well, for me, the series from Simon Sinek is interesting. He has a number of books. Of course, the topic is why he is very famous. It's more about strategy. But he has Leaders Eat Last, which is more about company culture, and I think that's a very, very good one. He has things very right. How he writes it and how to prevent it is more difficult, but when you read through it, it's definitely something that you want to be part of. So, for me, Simon Sinek books are very interesting and a great recommendation. One that I read with a lot of pleasure and even bought for all my team members is Radical Candor by Kim Scott. I read that book and it addresses a very important topic of balancing feedback, honest feedback with personal growth and care, and that's a difficult balance to find. If you care about someone, you're able to give honest feedback and that's not always easy, especially if you have a hierarchy or if you don’t have a performance culture, but to learn that it's a very important part of our culture. So I think that book was, for me, really an eye-opener and I can really recommend it. So it's called Radical Candor from Kim Scott.
L: Very powerful indeed. And I found it fascinating because, for me, it was also about the other part, about acknowledging, about listening. Frequently in my past, I would challenge feedback rather than try to sink into an understanding process and maybe even come back with trying to change my perspective on it, to get better at something right, or grow myself as a person. So that's what this book is all about as well. I feel it's fantastic. Okay, and any other sources like podcasts or books we mentioned movies or blogs.
D: Yeah, Absolutely. No, I'm more a reader than a podcast listener. In that sense, I'm more of a reader. Well, one more book that I also gave to my leadership team actually not to others, but to the leadership team is. It's a classic, and probably many listeners already read it. It's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, especially by Patrick Lencioni. It's especially interesting when you are scaling a bit a company and you start having a leadership team that has to work together, and it's about the trust, accountability, about communication within the leadership team, and that defines very much also how a company culture can evolve. Yes, because, finally, if a team functions like that, it dribbles down in your teams right, exactly. So I think that was, for me, also very valuable book that I took a lot from.
L: I had the pleasure to read this one as well. For me, it was a realization that it's more about promoting the team and the collective experience over the politics of an individual, which is very important, and I like how this book is also written as a storytelling.
D: It's a fantastic experience. Yeah, it's fascinating, absolutely.
L: It's really cool. It's not technical, it's not boring at all. It's really cool. Dirk, this was amazing. Thank you for your participation. Would you leave our listeners with a final message and maybe tell them where they can follow you on social media or elsewhere?
D: Yeah, I mean, basically I'm mainly a LinkedIn person. I'm in a traditional environment of the corporate world, so I'm on LinkedIn as Dirk Aarts, so I can be followed. I post actually quite a lot about culture, values and often related to my company, so that may be interesting. As a final wrap-up, I would say that culture is so incredibly powerful for a company and if you get it right, so many things are getting easier, better, more efficient, and more successful. And I think, of course, we focus on finances, we focus on marketing, we focus on sales, we focus on product development. That's all super important, but if you have a culture underneath that as a fundament, then all those things will go multiple times smoother, and I think that's super powerful.
L: Wow, that's… thank you. Thank you for this. That's really great. With your permission, I'll add the links to your LinkedIn through the footnote to this episode, so people can absolutely follow you through, and once again, thank you for being here.
D: Well, thank you for having me, and thank you for the conversation with us.
L: Cheers Dirk.
D: Thank you.