Creating a 'Contagious' Corporate Culture

New York, NY, 29 September 2015

The recent New York Times article on Amazon's "bruising workplace" sparked a firestorm of reaction. While I admire the giant retailer's singular accomplishment - instilling shared beliefs and principles in virtually all of its employees - I believe there is more than one way to do that.

Employees can deliver to the highest standards without being expected to answer texts in the middle of the night, pay for their own travel or worry that their next day of work could be their last. The situation with Amazon brings to light that the way a company does business can be just as important as what the company does.

Amazon's 14 Leadership Principles are admirable. They overlap with behaviors encouraged within my own company, the specialist healthcare business, BTG. It's our approach that is different. Our goal is to spread a cultural virus of shared values and behaviors that we call our "DNA." We facilitate this, but it happens organically, without pop quizzes (and we don't seek to inflict bruises, either).

As a growing, mid-sized company, we want to preserve a small-company energy and entrepreneurial way of thinking and acting - something that we've kept in mind as we've quickly grown from 67 to 1,200 employees in just 10 years. We believe such a culture is a true competitive advantage. It enables us to do amazing things, like finding smart, often unconventional solutions to complex medical problems. Like Amazon, our employees are encouraged to "see, hear and feel" our customers, which sparks innovative ideas. It must be working, because Forbes named BTG one of 2015's Most Innovative Growth Companies.

We believe "corporate values" are more than words on the wall in the lobby. Real behaviors are what matter. This was the philosophy in 2008 when BTG acquired the similarly sized Protherics Plc. Executives from both companies were called together for a two-day leadership meeting in London, and came well-prepared with their business plans, budgets, and org charts. But that's not what we spent our time talking about. Instead, we discussed the values we felt were most important to building our new company.

The meeting was emblematic of our belief that strength comes from everyone pulling together to make an organization successful. A positive, productive culture spreads informally when employees embody common behaviors (not just values written on posters).

Our approach to embedding culture, much like our approach to business, is very human. We avoid the usual "corporate" efforts. No hoopla, no training, no campaign slogans. Instead we treat it more like a "social movement" whose sole purpose is to influence how we think and feel and work together.

Being more human doesn't mean we're soft. Like those at Amazon, our employees are committed to thinking critically and delivering results. We hold each other to high standards -- to do things faster, better and simpler; to think boldly and challenge the status quo; to be resilient in the face of adversity. We don't like comfortable.

Our employees feel free to speak up - regardless of who they are speaking to. We believe communication and collaboration should be independent of the org chart. Sometimes this creates conflict, but it can be resolved when everyone assumes goodwill and acts in the best interest of the company. And hopefully, during normal business hours!

The social movement is low-key. We have a group of 100 employees from all levels, we call them our DNA champions, who create opportunities to discuss and experience our DNA in action. We believe telling stories is the best way to spread and reinforce our behavioral DNA. We informally celebrate the people and groups who exhibit these behaviors.

Most importantly, our DNA isn't a project or part of a data-driven daily performance review. It's just who we are. My favorite of our DNA statements is an instructive reminder for all of us, from the corner office to the lab bench: "Working here makes us better human beings. Dreams are welcome. Fun is the bonus."