Culture is a forcefield.

Ideas

Culture is a Forcefield

Steve Rio April 10, 2017

People ask me all the time how I lead my multinational company, growing 25% year over year, remotely from my hobby farm on a tiny island off the coast of Vancouver.

The question is often phrased like there’s a secret to unlocking this type of work-life freedom and building a team of amazing talent around the world.

Briteweb, a branding and digital agency focused exclusively on the social sector, has a remote work policy that’s three sentences long and ends with “Enjoy Bora Bora.” We’re incredibly flexible while remaining profitable and productive, but this wasn’t possible until a few critical elements were in place.

There is no cheat code to company culture. Still, we talk about culture as if it’s something you can add on to your business. I’m a tech geek and a futurist, so people assume I’ve got the killer app that will solve all their problems: “Is it an app you guys use? Are you on Slack?”

Well, yes, we use Slack religiously, and it’s awesome. But it’s not a magic ticket to working from an island or creating a team that operates across the globe. I could write a whole book on the way we’ve set up our tech stack, but I’ve learned firsthand that technology doesn’t create culture. It simply supports what already exists.

I also hear a lot of people talk about culture as a tool for retention. The definition of retention is “the continued possession, use, or control of something.” This implies that culture is a fence we build to keep our people in. Ranchers build retaining fences around their cattle. Is this really how we should be thinking about culture in our companies? It’s an outdated concept from a different age and it’s no longer serving us.

Today, we’re living in the information age — in a time of global connectivity and increasing abundance and choice. Bill Joy famously said, “The smartest people in the world don’t work for you.” There are incredible people and job opportunities all over the world. If we’re stuck on the idea of retention, we’re already losing.

Retention is no longer a valid measurement. Instead, we should focus on passion, attraction, and affinity.

Briteweb has been able to thrive because our culture is specifically not a fence. It’s a force field. It’s something that’s been built over time and from within.

Cultural force fields are energetically charged, powered by a team’s affinity to one another and to the company’s purpose. Force fields form an invisible barrier that supports and protects those within it, while creating a magnetic attraction to those outside of it.

That’s why, to me, culture isn’t a fence — It’s a force field.

Before you focus on technology, there are a few required elements that create a cultural force field. These are aspects of our company that we’re constantly evolving as we scale.

The center is a massive transformative purpose—a vision to inspire our tribe. A massive transformative purpose acts like atoms splitting, creating a wave of energy outwards into the universe. It’s the nucleus to every great company.

Briteweb’s purpose is to transform the role of brand in the social sector.

Briteweb is here to transform the role of brand in the social sector.

Notice I don’t mention being the best at creating websites or delivering brand strategy. Our purpose won’t be achieved solely with the services we have in place today. It’s intentionally far reaching and future focused.

Next, you need values to define how people should conduct themselves and treat one another. Values define what you stand for as a family; they form the social fabric of your company. They are a prerequisite to everything else. Without strong values, chaos is inevitable as you scale.

Luckily, these first two components were natural for me. Briteweb was founded with social impact as our mission, and our values for how we expect people to treat one another and conduct themselves have always been fairly obvious. That said, as we began to scale, we needed to articulate our values clearly in writing and ensure that they were embedded into every aspect of our business. We also needed to build structure around our purpose and values to focus the energy of our growing team.

That’s where strategy comes in. Strategy provides a plan for how to approach the work, so your team doesn’t burn out trying to achieve goals without goal posts. Burn out kills culture—simple as that.

Similarly, you need clear operational hierarchy in place. Processes, responsibilities, and protocols allow people to feel secure and stable in their roles, regardless if they are working in a freelance or traditional employment capacity. Similarly, well defined HR policies make it clear what is expected of people and avoids confusion.

Note that operational hierarchy and social hierarchy are completely different, and should never be confused. I’ll be writing about this distinction in an upcoming piece.

Finally, your brand is the outward facing voice of your company culture. It’s a common language you use to describe your mission and your tribe. A clearly defined brand not only attracts customers, but it attracts like-minded people who share a common passion for what you’re aiming to achieve.

So where is culture in all this? Culture is the energy that grows organically between your company’s purpose, values, and operating hierarchy. It’s what binds them together. It’s the affinity our team feels towards one another and towards our purpose.

Culture is what grows organically between the elements of a cultural force field.

Having these elements in place enables me to lead a fast growing company from a tiny island. Not because of some magical tool, but through our cultural force field.

Today, my focus is on building a community of people committed to the work we do by creating a force field that’s so powerful, people from all over the world are drawn to it and want to be involved. A place where people find a connection between their own purpose and the purpose of the company. Where deep meaning is found and impact becomes inevitable.

One of the ways we’re doing that is through the Briteweb Network, a distributed network of talented creatives who are passionate about making a difference in the world. Learn more about how to join us.

What's New