Why company culture is like an ice cream sundae

Culture is not an afterthought, but we’ve all heard the classics:

“We need to do something about our culture.”

“A, B or C happened because of our culture.”

“Let’s change our culture.”

Every single company that I've worked in, I've had those conversations. The thing that has always struck me is that people seem to think that culture is a thing. It’s not just one thing - it’s multi-layered.

So what are the different components of culture?

A multi-layered definition of company culture

If you Google “culture,” the definition card offers up three definitions that collectively are pretty insightful and I'd like to discuss a key phrase from each.

Google Definition Card for “Culture”

Rather than a sense of belonging, common history, or shared experience, human intellectual achievement is the top definition, interesting, as it suggests culture is defined by its own outcome.

Ideas and customs, often in the form of habits and social behaviors, make Google’s second definition of culture. Here we ask, how are good habits formed and positive social behaviors encouraged, in order to maximize human intellectual achievement?

And this leads us to Google’s third definition of “culture,” the conditions suitable for growth. On balance, is the environment you provide your most valuable asset, your people, conducive to improvement and results?

Consider this definition of company culture:

“Human intellectual achievement, as a result of positive ideas, customs, habits and social behaviors, nourished by optimal conditions for professional and commercial growth.”

That’s not your traditional definition of company culture but is sums up what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. If you know those two things, then you can actively foster the conditions for growth.

At Deliveroo, food matters and we talk about food constantly. So allow me to use an ice cream sundae analogy to show you how to curate the best culture for your company.

The Cone: What is your strategy?

Start with the cone, representing your strategy. What do you want to achieve? It’s really important to know where you're going as a business and to understand the purpose of doing so. Your company’s purpose is the image in employee’s minds about how the organization should be working and how it should appear when things are going well. The cone’s purpose is to hold the ice cream, but it must be both robust enough so the ice cream doesn’t leak out, as well as digestible!

The Ice Cream: Company Behavior

Once you have a firm grasp of where you’re going, reverse engineer success by aligning the expectations around how you need to behave to get there. Just like scooping ice cream into a cone, you need to be considered and purposeful about how you communicate your purpose and expectations of behavior – too much pressure can damage your value and your overarching strategy. Don’t snap the cone! 

The Cherry on Top: What experience do you bring to the table

The best ice cream sundaes go the extra mile, with a wide array of toppings to satisfy individual tastes, but still designed with the overall experience in mind. When building your company culture, designing all the layers with the employee experience in mind is critical. Otherwise it is just another dish of ice cream. 

company culture is like an ice cream sundae

Now that’s an ice cream sundae

I think it’s really important to think about each of the layers. People will say, “Well, this is just how we do things around here.” That’s great. However, if you're designing your company's culture intentionally, you need to be able to unpack those layers and to understand what that means.

The Deliveroo Dimension

Deliveroo started five years ago with Will Shu, our CEO and co-founder, on a bike with a handful of restaurants delivering great food to customers. Fast forward and we’re now 1,500 staff in 12 countries, growing and scaling like crazy.

When I joined as VP Global Head of People, I wrote down six words I felt described the culture at Deliveroo:

  1. Transparent
  2. Fun
  3. Collaborative
  4. Smart
  5. Self-taught
  6. Fast

Having worked most of my career at traditional, mature, corporate companies, the speed at which Deliveroo works is just mind-blowing. It’s operating in a completely different dimension – the Deliveroo dimension – where things feel accelerated to the speed of light. That ability to experiment, to iterate, to be agile, to make decisions and to move quickly is a startup phenomenon that we want to bake into our culture as we grow and we need to do that intentionally.

Deliveroo’s company culture in six words 

If we apply our ice cream sundae analogy to Deliveroo’s culture, the company started life in logistics and delivery but is now a tech organization intent on disrupting an $8 trillion food ecosystem industry. Put that way, a new recruit may feel intimidated, but when they enter our office environment, they see iconic food posters, breakout rooms with food themes and names, and how food generally permeates everything we do, and they settle in fast.

The strategy is clear, the cone is built.

Our ice cream is an interesting four-flavor ecosystem with the company in the center. We have our employees, we have our riders that are self-employed, we have our restaurants who are our partners, and we have our customers. The entire ecosystem important. A key habit of ours is actively asking what a potential decision means for our riders, restaurant partners, employees, and of course, our customers.

The cherry on top of our growth trajectory is the experience we quite literally bring to the table, day in, day out, helping people with busy lives to get great food in a convenient and stress-free way. When you put that all together, that’s when you get something magical. 

About Culture Amp

Culture Amp helps you make your company a better place to work. By making it easy to collect, understand and act on employee feedback, we enable HR leaders to make better decisions, demonstrate impact, and turn company culture into a competitive edge.

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