In today’s workplace, leaders are keenly aware that company culture is essential to employee retention and satisfaction, and as a result, tied to company strategy and growth. But what actually goes into creating a strong company culture? It’s much more than just great perks or declarations of company values. 

Melissa Daimler, Udemy's Chief Learning Officer
Melissa Daimler, Udemy’s Chief Learning Officer

In her new book, ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture to Connect with Strategy and Purpose for Lasting Success, Melissa Daimler, Udemy’s Chief Learning Officer, argues that it’s crucial to take a systems approach to culture — one focused on behaviors, processes, and practices — and integrate it with the company’s purpose and strategy. In answering the following questions for this post, she shares some of her insights from the book and beyond into what it means for companies to remake their cultures as both work and the world evolve.

Q: What are the three most important elements of company culture? How do they work together?

I define culture as our behaviors, processes, and practices. So many companies think they’re defining culture when they create a list of values. However, what happens, then, is the values get misinterpreted until they are so diluted they become meaningless. 

A better approach to defining culture is to define behaviorally what each value means. That’s what we’re doing right now at Udemy. When we say “Earnestly Authentic” what does that mean? How does that show up? Is it being respectful with each other? Encouraging constructive debate with kindness? Defining these values more specifically allows us to then integrate and operationalize those behaviors into how we work. 

Often, the reason feedback, performance management, and figuring out promotions can be challenging is because we are always resetting what good looks like. If we set these standards up front and continue to reinforce them with each other, then hiring, onboarding, and performance management become a little easier. It also helps us get very clear on who we want to hire, how we want to onboard, and how we even want to develop our employees. Culture is how work happens between people. It is every interaction that happens, every decision that is made—whether in person or remotely. It is what we do, not what we have. Culture is happening right now, whether by design or by default. A culture by design strengthens organizations. A culture by default weakens them.

Q: We’re in the midst of newly building what work looks like in a hybrid work environment. In the return to office transition, culture is front and center in conversations about hybrid models, four-day workweeks, and onsite amenities to make the office more exciting. How should leaders be thinking about culture in this crucial moment? 

The question I’m hearing from a lot of leaders here and from some of our customers is, “How do we get our culture back?” as a result of thinking the office is the primary way to build culture. And, of course, it’s not as if we’re only thinking about the free food and happy hours. A better question is: “How do we reinforce what’s important to our culture?” This is agnostic of location. This can still mean coming to the office to have meaningful connection moments. However, it needs to include a focus on creating those connection moments with our remote employees as well. I think a game of ping pong with a few free drinks and food are great ways to connect more deeply with our colleagues. However, we need to be thinking beyond perks and be more intentional about where, why, and how we are connecting. Many teams are coming together more now for offsites in person, leveraging opportunities to meet each other, brainstorm on a white board together, and get to know each other in a way that can’t be done through a computer. These are important moments, and we need to think about these moments as opportunities to strengthen partnerships and team cohesion. 

Q: How does thinking about work and culture as a system change the way leaders approach it?

ReCulturing, by Melissa Daimler, Udemy CLO

Companies can be misled in believing they are taking action on their own organizational culture by creating a list of values or rolling out training programs. What I have found is that the best organizations have a systems view of culture—they know that all the parts connect and work with each other. When gaps appear, they work to close them or reconnect them to a foundational part of the system. There could be a strong purpose that is not represented in the strategy. The strategy could be strong with no real connection to how that strategy will be executed effectively. On the other hand, when those connections are strong, both the business and employees succeed. 

I learned very early in my career that I could create a more impactful, long-term solution in different situations when I found ways to create connection between organizational parts. I often found myself in conversations about strategy—what we’re working on—and wondering why we weren’t also discussing culture and how we were working with each other. When we talked about the structure of an organization, I would refer to the strategy. When we discussed what skills and capabilities were needed for a role on a team, I made sure that we also discussed how the organizational behaviors would show up in that role. 

Q: You argue that diversity, equity, and inclusion aren’t separate concepts from a company’s purpose, strategy, or culture. What do you mean by this and how should leaders think about DEI?

We have thankfully gone beyond thinking DEI is just a training everyone has to do. Yet, leaders still don’t realize that DEI is actually a set of skills we need to actively keep developing. We need to have the skills to share diverse perspectives, ensure everyone has a voice in the room, and look for ways to bring in diverse candidates. DEI needs to be part of the strategy and the culture vs. a separate initiative alongside it. It needs to be embedded into the objectives of our strategy and embedded into the behaviors, processes, and practices of our culture.

Q: You write that every company must become a learning organization. Why? And how can leaders ensure learning creates meaning for employees and impact for the company?

ReCulturing cannot happen without learning. Learning is what makes those behaviors, processes, and practices stick. It is an ongoing practice of building skills, experiences, and knowledge through our work, not around or on top of it. 

“We want to build a learning organization.” This is what I hear from leaders at all levels, at companies of all sizes. Like a good culture discussion, I always follow that statement up with, “What does that mean to you?” And just like the culture responses, I hear a lot of different definitions: 

“We have a lot of trainings available to our employees.” 

“Learning is a value.”

“We hired a trainer.”

“I want my employees to have fun.” 

A company is not automatically a learning organization when it offers training programs. It may even be the opposite. True learning organizations are clear on their purpose, strategy, and culture, and they ensure the connection between those and the skills they are building. In our 2020 Skills Gap Report, we highlighted the importance of the organization’s role regarding learning. Employees expressed the concern that they can’t narrow the skills gap sufficiently on their own. Employees believe that employers have an important, collaborative role to play in supporting their development. Like ReCulturing, learning is co-driven. Employees need to be clear on what they need and want to learn based on conversations with their manager and peers. The manager needs to identify the skills and provide the feedback and opportunities for employees to learn and develop. The organization needs to provide clarity on what behavioral skills are needed for employees and managers.  

Learning the skills to best exemplify values-based behaviors is, then, part of our job. This is contextual learning—learning within the context of the organizational environment, experiences, and expectations. The Center for Occupational Research and Development defines contextual learning further: “to leverage multiple aspects of any learning environment, classroom, or a worksite to incorporate many different forms of experience in working toward the desired learning outcomes. Students discover meaningful relationships between abstract ideas and practical applications in the context of the real world; concepts are internalized through the process of discovering, reinforcing, and relating.” 

Contextual learning means defining skills based on the organizational behaviors that are expected from every employee and providing opportunities to develop and practice them. This approach creates a more meaningful experience for the employee and a more impactful one for the organization. People learn best when there is context for why those skills are important to learn. When what we are trying to learn is connected to a system to support that learning, learning is more effective and natural. 

If “Take creative risks” is a desired behavior, then the organization needs to define what a “creative risk” is. It should then help employees identify ways to learn and practice skills to take creative risks. If we think being results-obsessed is important, and we have a behavior around prioritization, then it’s our responsibility as an organization to develop skills to help employees prioritize effectively. 

Developing those skills that we defined from our behaviors is what I call a learning organization. When what we’re learning is what we are reinforcing, learning, development, and growth all become much easier.  

Melissa Daimler’s ReCulturing: Design Your Company Culture to Connect with Strategy and Purpose for Lasting Success, is available on Amazon.com.

Page Last Updated: May 2022

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