Work culture. Everyone talks about it, but not everyone gets it. When it comes to work, culture is as important to the company as the results. And while ensuring the culture is healthy and sustainable is a time-consuming process, leaders, directors, and CEOs can tell you firsthand how costly a lack of (or bad) culture can be. We sat down with Mareike Mutzberg, co-author Culture Up, to discuss what culture means to her and to dive deep into the topic.
”A learning culture is part of the company culture, so the very first step would be to prepare the overall company culture. In fact, the company culture has to shift towards a learning culture and has to give way to it.”
Can you tell us about the moment you realized how vital work culture was to the overall employee experience?
I changed jobs several times and got to know different employers and fields of work, from agencies to large corporations to very young startups; from project management to executive assistant to business development and consulting to communications and marketing. Looking back, I can confidently say that I always stayed the longest where the team, culture, and working atmosphere were right. I felt I could contribute personally and was happy to do more. It was fulfilling and often even fun. I felt comfortable and like I belonged. Of course, the salary has to be right and the tasks interesting, but for me, the culture and the team were clearly always THE decisive factor for being happy, productive, and involved there. Because the work culture is the basis for employee experience. Culture is defined by shared values, norms, traditions, how people interact with each other and behave, in short, how they do things around here - and that’s how employees experience the company and their jobs.
If someone is trying to build a learning culture from scratch, what would you say is the first step one should take?
A learning culture is part of the company culture, so the very first step would be to prepare the overall company culture. In fact, the company culture has to shift towards a learning culture and has to give way to it. This is done by adjusting your communication culture and communicate regularly that learning is appreciated, that learning enables new skills, can open doors, and pave new career paths. Tell success stories about people in your company who have achieved something due to learning, or acknowledge a team member’s newly earned certificate during your all-hands meeting. If a problem arises, encourage your team to look for solutions in your learning tool or gain more knowledge in that field through training or a course.
Also, adjust your feedback culture: integrate a question in your employee survey about what people want to learn, and how they want to develop themselves - and act upon it.
And finally, get a great (meaning fun to engage with and easy to use) learning tool and feed it with in-house knowledge. Mandatory learning sessions (e.g. health and safety checks, anti-harassment training, data protection, and privacy training) should be found exclusively in that tool, so even reluctant people get to work with it and might find it useful and intriguing after all.
Do you think the events over the past few years have accelerated the conversation on the importance of an engaging work culture?
The conversation about it, definitely - the implementation of it, not so much. People are talking about culture now, and more seem to understand the real meaning and scope of it (in contrast to only a ‘working atmosphere’). But still many companies let their work culture run wild so that it evolves on its own (what it inevitably does) because they don’t see the need to change anything - until it’s too late. The thing is, wherever people work together, there is an inherent culture (which is usually fine at first) so management often doesn’t see the need to do anything until it’s too late.
Because if you neglect this initial culture, there is a high probability that the culture will fail, or you will need a change process that is hard, expensive and painful. Culture is like the soil on the patch of land that represents each company - the literal "common ground" with your team, if you will. It's there and you take it for granted. And something will grow there, whether you like it or not. Take this metaphor as an example: Think of your culture as a vegetable garden. You have to plow the ground, plant seeds, and water them. You wouldn't just stand there and watch it go wild, would you? Well, that's what most founders and leaders do with their company culture.
You recently wrote a fantastic book with Margareta Sailer called “Culture Up”. What was the motivation to write this and do you have plans to pen another book together in the future?
Thank you very much!
Meggy and I met at Lilium, where we were part of the team that built Lilium from the ground up. Lilium took off, and so did other companies we worked in or were invested in. Meggy and I quickly became friends outside the company and discovered that we both had a passion for people and company culture. We share the belief that the world needs changing and that startups with their (mostly) idealistic, disruptive, and truly innovative ideas have the potential to do just that. We loved to engage in discussions about the human factor with founders and leaders across different industries and discovered that people and work culture tend to be overlooked. Our discussions and later our research helped us gain the insight that team & culture is in fact one of the top make-or-break factors for startups.
So, when I was on maternity leave for my second child, we decided to bundle our knowledge and share best practices on how any startup can create an exceptional work environment. And I want to fill you in on our approach for this: Meggy lives in the UK, and I live in Germany. We wrote our book completely remotely, having regular zoom calls, and sending each other a dozen WhatsApp messages daily. So, coincidently, we proved ourselves right about the fact that a caring team with the same vision and values, which communicates well, can work successfully with absolute freedom, from anywhere and anytime they want. A strong culture carries teams through difficult times.
And to your question: during writing Culture Up we already had so many ideas that we have our own folder for future books and projects. And you’re the first to know that in fact, Meggy and I are preparing to publish another book. ;-)
Because learning is always on for us at Mentessa, what are you reading right now? Or what podcast are you currently listening to?
Oh, my booklist is in fact my bookshelf, because I love having the physical book in my hands. On the top shelf, you will find Medici Effect by Frans Johansson, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, and Range by David Epstein, to name a few. I promise you will learn a lot by reading those.
Right now, Think Again by Adam Grant is on my bedside table.
You talk a lot about the topic of ‘scanner personalities’. Can you elaborate a bit on what this means?
My personal story goes like this: I always felt like a quitter, I started so many things enthusiastically - hobbies, interests, jobs - just to quit again at one point. I could never stick to anything because I wanted to experience it all, know it all, and try it all. I was always searching for my true calling, my niche so to say. When I started working at Lilium as the 4th employee, I was heavily involved in everything “non-engineering”. I suddenly realised that being a generalist, interested in almost everything, eager to learn, and not afraid to be a beginner in HR, IT, Marketing, and Finance topics, I had a huge benefit not only for the startup but for me personally. So, I started writing down all the benefits an “anti-specialist”, or “quitter” has, and during my research I stumbled across a book called Refuse to Chose by Barbara Sher. It was a revelation to me. I finally felt belonging and understood. I wasn’t a quitter or “anti-specialist”: I was a Scanner!
Scanners are people who have a scanner personality, meaning, they “scan” for their next interest or experience. As Sher puts it “To Scanners, the world is like a big candy store full of fascinating opportunities, and all they want is to reach out and stuff their pockets.”
At this point, I often hear that almost everyone likes new hobbies or changes their job sometimes and moves from one idea to another. But some people are simply “trying to make up their minds, and when they find the “right” choice, they can easily give up all the other ideas they considered.” (Sher).
In contrast, a Scanner has an intense curiosity about a vast variety of subjects and is endlessly inquisitive and hopelessly in love with seemingly almost any topic.
Also, it has nothing to do with ADD, because Scanners don’t have a problem with the normal ability to focus - until something arouses a new interest, which can take months or years.
If you’re interested, my book “To Hell with Specialisation” has now been published and can be bought on Amazon (https://amzn.eu/d/9En3TBP).
What are your predictions for work culture and employee engagement in 2023?
Home office and hybrid forms of work are on the rise and will become even more interactive and thus more attractive thanks to new developments in technologies such as AR and VR.Workplace concepts will become more flexible and, wherever possible, employees will be free to choose where and when they work.
With the rise of automation and AI, jobs will shift to areas where the "human touch" is required. AI will not (in the foreseeable future) be able to lead teams with empathy and compassion. Nor will people take machines seriously as their role models. I know I wouldn't do it.
And despite the flexible ways of working, after such a long period of social distancing, I see a hunger for human connection and a sense of belonging. People are longing to reconnect and meet face-to-face. So I'd like to think that everyday meetings, collaborations but also team nights out, company outings, and parties will make a comeback with fresh ideas, increasing engagement and productivity again.In short, we will see the human being placed more and more at the center of entrepreneurial endeavors as the focus shifts to individuality rather than the one-size-fits-all approach. Of course not all at once in 2023, but let's stay optimistic like a real scanner ;-)
About Mareike Mutzberg
Born and raised near Aachen, Mareike spent a year in New Zealand after her A Levels. She studied Organisational Education & Training, Psychology of Knowledge, Linguistics & Communication Science at the RWTH Aachen and did her Master’s Degree in Media Culture at the Universiteit Maastricht.Mareike gained experience in renowned communication agencies in Munich before she became the fourth employee of Lilium, and mother to two boys. During her parental leave, she wrote two books and got involved in podcasts and webinars.
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