Defining company culture isn’t easy for massive businesses, let alone SMEs with less than 250 employees. This is where the power of role modelling and setting benchmarks comes in, and exactly why we teamed up with Breathe to reveal the UK’s Top 25 SME Culture Leaders.
The campaign opened the floor up to UK’s SMEs to shout about their workplace perks and rewards schemes that underscore the general values, mission and principles of their company culture.
Of the companies that made the shortlist, 25 victors emerged. Entries to the campaign covered a wide range of industries and sectors, and each had its own idea of what it means to be a Culture Leader.
The judges and process
Our judges included Jonathan Richards, CEO of Breathe, Praseeda Nair, editorial director of Real Business and Business Advice, Alex Currie, HR Director of GoCompare, Bretton Putter, founder of Culture Gene, Zoe Jervier, Operating Partner of Talent at EQT Ventures, Phil Lewis, MD of Corporate Punk, and Chris Dyer, author of The Power of Company Culture.
Each nomination was judged against a score card that measured the company’s values, approach, culture in practice, long-term vision, and business impact.
The results are in, and here are the Top 25 SME Culture Leaders for 2018. Check out our infographic at the bottom to see a breakdown by company size and other insights.
- Oxford Summer Courses
- Boost Drinks
- Neo PR
- MindWorks Marketing
- HR Revolution
- Red Badger
- Time Etc
- Forum Events
- Magenta Associates
- Fieldhouse Associates
- GingerMay PR
- Zool Digital
- Phoenix Community Care
- The Specialist Works
Insights from the judging panel
“When everyone is on the same page, thinking as a whole and not as an individual, challenges will seem less daunting, collaboration and communication will skyrocket and the passion for growing the business will be felt by all.” – Jonathan Richards.
So – how did we decide on this list, and what does it mean to have a good company culture?
“When people talk about culture, there’s a perception that Silicon Valley-style perks will make the workforce happy,” explains Praseeda Nair, editorial director of Real Business and Business Advice.
“You don’t need a big budget to have a great workplace, though. We’ve seen that time and again in some of the high-growth companies we’ve interviewed at different stages of growth. As they scale, businesses go through a process of evolution, and that includes their culture. It’s fascinating to see which businesses thrive and which don’t. It all boils down to strong company culture based on trust and aligning with what your employees need.”
Jonathan Richards, CEO of BreatheHR, agrees that this is a big part of nailing business culture, and warned that business leaders should not forget that culture comes from both the boss and the employees.
“When you employ the right people, for the right things and for the right reasons – those who fit in with the values you hope to push – culture will naturally be taken up,” he says.
However, when it comes to a hard and fast definition, even among the judges the idea was hotly debated. It is clear there is still a long way to go to define what makes benchmark-setting company culture for businesses with less than 250 employees.
Over the coming weeks, we will be profiling each of the judges that took part on the day, exploring some of the key ideas around strong company culture, and generally keeping the conversation going to help all businesses strive towards a better company culture.
In the meantime, here are some words from our judges on what it means to be a Culture Leader:
Build it from the ground up
According to Bretton Putter, one of our judges from the Culture Gene, culture isn’t something you “forcibly create”. You really do need to start from the ground up.
“When you get the foundations right, the company will naturally transform into a cultural powerhouse. At the core of every business is the mission and vision, which are absolutely critical in setting the direction of the company and focusing the team,” he explains.
“This informs how the business operates, creates passion and understanding among employees. Fostered trust and transparency go a long way in helping staff open up about their work experiences.”
Alex Currie, HR Director of GoCompare, agrees with Putter; as he puts it, “honest is a necessity”.
“You can evolve culture, push a vision or thrust wellbeing into the limelight if no one is willing to speak about their experiences. Honesty should be a key pillar in any company as without it, culture won’t matter,” said Currie.
How can it go wrong?
“Culture can’t be formed by plucking ideas out of the air. They need to be plucked directly for the minds of those working with you. Culture, in a way, means understanding your staff. It’s the willingness to respond to their wishes,” says Zoe Jervier, Operating Partner of Talent, EQT Ventures.
Of course, building a strong company culture is not just about pulling together a string of ideals – it’s also about taking real action, and avoiding the pitfalls.
“If you push values, say pretty words and don’t follow through, your workplace will become a toxic one,” says Currie.
Chris Dyer, author of The Power of Company Culture, argues that consistency across the organisation is also key – the experience of company culture needs to be the same for any employee, no matter where in the world they are.
“When everyone feels as much part of the company, on a permanent basis, then employees will naturally become more productive, more open and collaborative. It will spread naturally across the company. And if there’s no consistency, things can easily fall apart,” he warns.
Culture is a moving target
“It’s when culture becomes a box-ticking exercise that things go wrong.” – Zoe Jervier.
“Instead, the best companies listen to employees. Even if they can’t implement what staff most desire, the fact that the boss entertained the thought and perhaps sought an alternative, is important for staff morale.”
As Phil Lewis, MD of Corporate Punk puts it, “culture isn’t something set in stone. It is informed by the people you work with”.
As your business changes and grows, so will the nature and requirements of your company culture. You have to remain flexible – and not rely on box-ticking.
Companies may well need a broad definition to work towards and a set of standards in mind, but they shouldn’t be afraid to evolve and grow.
“Making cultural feel natural, mutual and distinctive relies on the opinion of your team. What works well for one team might not in the future,” says Lewis.
“Doing culture right means setting the groundwork early on and then tweaking smaller areas based on the current needs of your workforce – making it unique.” – Phil Lewis
Ultimately, there is no checklist that a business can use to make sure it has the “right” company culture – it comes down to people, listening to your staff and being open minded to change.
In association with Breathe, Real Business is now running the SME Culture Leaders List 2019, the only league table of its kind catering to the UK’s thriving small and medium businesses that put company culture first.