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SME Culture Leaders 2018: Judge Alex Currie on knowing what makes your business unique

Beyond its moustachioed mascot, GoCompare has built its business on the foundation of a strong company culture. 
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GoCompare has been on a learning curve, though, says HR director Alex Currie. It had to change its culture after being bought by another business – and then once more after de-merging and listing on the London Stock Exchange.

Having been part of such a process, Currie was selected to be one of seven judges that would decide the UK’s Top 25 SME Culture Leaders list. 

The campaign – a joint effort from Real Business and BreatheHR – hoped to shove larger corporates to the side and give SMEs a chance to shout about their amazing perks and culture. 

While you can find more information about the general process and the winners here, Currie fleshed out what he personally judged the companies on.

How would you define company culture?

It’s made up of the beliefs, behaviours, values and ways of doing things that underpin everything you do as an organisation. From the way you treat each other to how you interact with customers – and anyone else that deals with the business.

Why is getting culture right important for businesses, particularly SMEs?

As a smaller organisation, culture is hugely important. When you are in the throws of starting up or still trying to make a profit, salaries are not necessarily the most competitive.

Having a culture that is unique to your business is something a little bit special. It can almost certainly swing a candidate in your favour. Having a culture that existing staff can relate to and feel connected to also increases engagement and unlocks the holy grail of business… discretionary staff effort.

It is a cost effective way of attracting and retaining talent.

How can SMEs avoid box-ticking?

Culture can’t be a tick-box exercise. For a start, there is no one-size-fits-all. What may work in one organisation may not quite fit another. The time spent trying to pay lip service to something that hasn’t got buy-in from the top would be better spent actually focusing on what culture means to you as an organisation.

Some of the best cultures I have worked in have been collaboratively arrived at through company-wide workshops and feedback sessions.

A good starting point for any business is to understand what it means to work in your organisation. What is it about your organisation that makes it different? What behaviours are expected and what are the values? Link this to how you treat your suppliers and customers, reward against it and you are on to a pretty good start at embedding your own culture.

What is your experience around culture? What makes you a voice of authority in this space?

I have been lucky enough to work across a number of different cultures ranging from large, global, fragmented cultures to the public sector and SMEs. My favourite and probably the most challenging experience with company culture has been during my current role at GoCompare.

When I joined the business in 2010 it wad a founder-led SME. As we grew, the culture grew as well. It experienced the same growing pains every business goes through. We were then bought by another company and became part of a wider group. This meant the culture had to change to fit in with the wider group approach.

Within a year and a bit we were demerging and listing on the London Stock Exchange in our own right, and again, the culture changed.

We took the opportunity to engage with our teams on the mission and vision of the business and what that means for our values. We took feedback on positioning our identity and through a joined-up approach, settled on something that had real buy-in from staff and senior stakeholders alike.

In terms of what makes me an authority… I’m not. What I do have is experience across a number of organisations and cultures and know what it takes to engage a group of people so that culture means something.

What would make a strong entry for next year’s entrants? What would impress you?

The quality of 2018 was superb. There were some really innovative ideas that showed a great culture could be achieved irrespective of budget or staff size. In terms of next year, I would be looking for examples that clearly show culture being owned at the top of the organisation, but that take a staff-centric approach in developing it.

Watch this space to hear about company culture, as defined by the SME Culture Leaders judging panel.

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is the deputy editor of Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

Real Business