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‘A solid company culture washes away bad apples’ – Alan Knott-Craig

The paramount importance of a positive company culture is finally starting to stick. Before I started working at BizNews, ‘company culture’ as a concept was somewhat foreign to me. You worked hard, obeyed orders and internalised any and all grievances – it was that simple. My experience at BizNews, which is serendipitously mirrored in this article by Alan Knott-Craid, showed me a whole new side to people and to company culture. Positive company culture is one where values are not just words which are buried obscurely on the last page of a contract – they are embodied and lived. – Nadya Swart

Culture = The Holy Grail for Scale

By Alan Knott-Craig* 

One of the biggest determinants of a successful business is company culture. 

The right culture means a business can grow without micromanagement.

The right culture means a business outlasts the competition. 

The right culture means you attract talent.

The right culture expels bad apples.

Culture is key.

Get it wrong, and the workplace can spiral into a prison where employees dream of escape and/or genocide. 

Get it right, and the workplace becomes a place where employees can’t wait to start the workday. 

Culture starts with people. 

The first rule is to work with good people.

  • Good people

We all inherently know what is good. And we also know that no one is perfect. 

We’re all human, we all make mistakes, we all have flaws. 

So, start with hiring people that are trying to be a good person.

What is the definition of a good person?

The starting point in defining a good person is by way of Nassim Taleb’s advice: Via negativa. Identify what is not a good behaviour.

Using the concept of Via Negativa, we can assume that whilst people are intrinsically good, they have layers of bad habits which make their behaviour bad. 

The way to be a better person is to strip out the bad behaviour. 

  • Lying.
  • Laziness.
  • Arrogance.
  • Disrespect.
  • Leading by fear.
  • Not keeping promises.
  • Not helping the less fortunate.

Becoming a good person is not a willpower thing. If you have to physically will yourself to strip out bad behaviour, you’ll quickly reach decision fatigue and revert back to bad ways.

The secret to better behaviour is your environment.

In particular, who do you spend your time with.

It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: To recruit good people you must have good people in place. To have good people in place you must recruit good people.

The gist is that you must be very careful about the values of people you recruit.

Start by carefully defining the values that resonate with you, for example:

  1. Kindness. 
  2. Generosity.
  3. Friendliness.
  4. Helping other people.
  5. Gratitude.
  6. Humility.
  7. Courage.
  8. Honesty.

In my opinion, after twenty years in business starting as young and cocky, and now just middle-aged and cocky, the most important value is “Respect”.

  • Respect

Be respectful to other races, genders, religions, elders, the poor, accountants, truth, promises, everyone, everything.

If you keep just that one word, respect, in the middle of your values framework, then you will steer clear of racism, sexual harassment, arrogance, lies, broken promises and other poisonous aspects that pop up in business.

  • Do the right thing

Even if you have good people with good values, you still can’t be sure they’ll do the right thing.

“Doing the right thing” comes from consciously training your staff. Everything from communication skills (i.e.: be polite, don’t fold your arms), to company etiquette (i.e.: don’t be late, children are welcome), to corporate ethics (i.e.: don’t accept gifts from suppliers, don’t spy on staff).

A company filled with good people with good values, that have been trained in how-to do-good business, will always do the right thing.

  • Post-COVID culture

The post-COVID new normal means remote working and flexi-time will become widely accepted, and will make culture harder to build and maintain.

It is critical to develop alternative strategies for building team-bonds, raising morale, communicating, training and generally fostering relationship capital.

Some ways to address these challenges:

  1. Shared workspace for small companies.
  2. Shrunken offices for big companies.
  3. Regular online town hall gatherings.
  4. Regular email updates.
  5. Alternate days in office for different dept’s.
  6. Publish rankings of email send/received to shine a light on those that don’t communicate enough and incentivise communication. 
  7. Most training will be online, but in-person training sessions can now be used as opportunity for team building.
  8. Quarterly scheduled staff events, including families.
  9. Special attention to younger staff that need mentorship & teaching. Most learning happens via osmosis, not over Zoom.
  10. Intensive new employee induction programmes and regular reinforcement of company values & rules.

Most entrepreneur’s instinct will be to disregard PPE, but most people are not entrepreneurs. Most people fear getting sick or infecting their loved ones.

COVID presents an opportunity to show staff that you care for them and their families by making the workplace as safe as possible.

The new normal of flexi-time and remote working also presents an opportunity to attract talent that is constrained by old-school thinking, i.e.: be at office 8am, wear a suit.

Only narcissists and has-beens will insist that the old rules are enforced.

  • Communication

A common thread through all positive company cultures, for both pre- and post-COVID times, is the importance of communication.

Tell your people what’s going on. Provide safe opportunities for 360-degree feedback. Repeat your company values, over and over. Have regular town-halls.

Communicate communicate communicate.

  • Leadership

Without leadership, there is nothing.

If the boss is dishonest, or racist, or micro-managing, or autocratic, or narcissistic, or lazy, or back-stabbing, then the culture will mirror him/her.

Pre-COVID and post-COVID, bad leaders = bad culture.

If you want a positive company culture, you need leaders that are good people. Leaders whose behaviour resonates with the values of the culture you want to build.

It’s not impossible to avoid bad leaders. Just look for the following red flags:

  • Does she walk her talk? Do her words translate into action? Does she support racial diversity but have a racially monogenous exco?
  • Does she put in the hours that she expects of her staff? Or does go away for weekends whilst expecting underlings to sacrifice family time?
  • Does he treat the tea-lady and the chairman with equal respect? Does he create an environment that is comfortable for women?
  • Does she rule by fear? Does she put loyalty ahead of competence?

A solid company culture washes away bad apples, including bad leaders. 

A company filled with people that always do the right thing is a company that will attract the right people, the customers, the right investors, and will ultimately be able to grow faster than its competitors.

Culture = The Holy Grail for Scale. 

  • Alan Knott-Craig is a successful entrepreneur, best-selling author, and founder of Project Isizwe, an NGO that deploys affordable public WiFi to rural communities across Africa. He is also the founder of HeroTel, a broadband operator operating throughout SA. Originally from Pretoria, he studied at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (formerly UPE) and qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Deloitte in 2002. Between 2003 and 2017 he has co-founded and/or funded 27 companies in the Technology, Media and Telecommunications sector in Africa. He was named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2009.

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