Why company culture has never been so important [INTERVIEW]

When's a good time to start working on your company(s) culture? Now, it's always now. Jonathan Richards, CEO of Breathe

In our 3rd talk of Everest Training Industry Conference 2021, accessplanit had the privilege of welcoming Jonathan Richards, CEO of Breathe, to our virtual stage to talk about the importance of company culture, alongside our Managing Director, Hannah Churchman. This blog follows the interview between Hannah and Jonathan, exploring what company culture and core values are all about, and why culture is so important in the new normal.


You can watch the interview on-demand below:


Use the links below to quickly navigate to areas of interest

What is a toxic workplace culture?

How do we define company culture?

How can leadership help create company culture?

How can we redefine our values?

How can we bring company values to life?

How can we support the well-being of our team?

How does L&D feed in to company culture?

How can we demonstrate culture in recruitment?

What single piece of advice can help us create a great company culture?

How can we keep culture alive remotely?

How can we change a company culture that's fully remote?


New Project (18) (2)       Jonathan Richards, CEO of Breathe

New Project (15) (1)     Hannah Churchman, MD of accessplanit


Breathe's culture report

Hannah: Hi Jonathan, great to have you along to Everest. Breathe recently released a culture report, can you tell us a little bit about what the report is all about, where you got that research from and just give us a bit of context around it?

Jonathan: "So this is the fourth year that we've done the culture economy report, and what we set out to do initially was to investigate and try and prove the case that culture is essential for the economic well-being of a business and particularly small business."

"The initial reports that we conducted four years ago really highlighted the fact that businesses that were deliberate about the way they set up their company culture and nurture their company culture were ones that were really thriving. But not only were they thriving, they were great places to work, so it was a win-win all round."

"Since then, what we've done is we've taken different areas of culture or different parts about the economy that we're involved in. For example,  in the 2021 report, it was in the the age of pandemic, and it was really looking at organizations as to how they were adjusting, or indeed, were they adjusting during the the pandemic? Some fantastic, really positive results and some pretty sort of challenging results but very much it's to highlight to us as business owners just how important culture is and to start to feed into the mix some of the best examples that we've seen out there."

"We take out fresh results each time, we do quantitative we do qualitative, and we just try and build that picture up and then we back that up with our culture leaders list which is us saying here are these fantastic organizations that we believe are doing a job that needs a light shining on it."

What is a toxic workplace culture?

Hannah: So just a few stats that I pulled from the most recent report which I thought were quite shocking - is it true toxic workplace culture is costing the UK economy 20 billion pounds a year? That's wild!

Jonathan: "Yeah phenomenal numbers, and you know there's this idea of 'lies, damn lies and statistics' - you know we can make the numbers say whatever we want, but we always go through these numbers with a really fine tooth comb, and you know toxic's a difficult word."

What is a toxic culture? Toxic means something different to everyone.

"Toxic means something different to everyone, but when you start to look at employees that are leaving, or the productivity is going down, or communication isn't happening - those numbers really start to ramp up. Say we lose an employee because they're not happy, well we have to recruit them again -  not only are we having to pay the cost of recruiting we're paying the cost of building them up to speed, so yeah those numbers are huge."

"There's often some very quick wins that an organization can have. You can't turn a culture around overnight, but I think by just highlighting some of the things that can be done, we're just trying to help businesses make a difference."

How do we define company culture?

Hannah: It'd be interesting to get in to some of those quick-wins a little bit later! Another statistic that I picked up on was 'a third of employees quit due to company culture fit' - so I guess that leads us to the the elusive question of - what is culture? Is there a one-size-fits-all definition?

Jonathan: "I guess there's lots of different definitions - there's lots of textbooks trying to answer that. I tend to go right back to something really basic, and it's just how we do stuff around here - it's  what makes an organization tick. I also like to think of it as being how we do stuff around here 'when the bosses aren't around' - it's just what goes on,  what's the bedrock of the organization. We can get into things like values, vision and mission and all that kind of good stuff but fundamentally it's what what makes the organization tick."

Hannah: So going back to textbooks... Peter Drucker - I'm sure you know what's coming, said that 'culture eats strategy for breakfast' - what are your thoughts on that quote?

Jonathan: "Who am I to question the great Peter Drucker! Culture without strategy is just a party - you know it's a great place to work but without the strategy you don't know where you're going,  so I think the two are joined at the hip, and you can't have one without the other."

"You've got to lead with the culture - the culture is the bit that provides the momentum, the strategy provides the direction, and I don't think you can have a great culture in an organization without a well thought through strategy - so joined at the hip."

How can leadership help create company culture?

Hannah: That's a great answer -  love that. So how does a leadership team create a culture, and how important are they in building that culture? What could they be doing?

Jonathan: "The leadership team is central to it, they are not the culture but they build or demolish the culture. I once had somebody suggest to me that as a company is growing, the first 20 employees are the ones that set the culture, and then it's increasingly difficult after that to change it. So the leadership team, I think, have got to tread a difficult balance between two opposites between communicating and listening."

"First off, we always hear 'communicate, communicate' - you can't communicate enough. That's true, I totally agree with that. But then, on the flip side of that, you know you've got two ears one mouth, use them in that proportion."

"I think what the leadership team have got to do is listen to what the organization is feeling, and then communicate in to that, and then pause and listen, and then continue to communicate in. Things like company values, what makes the company tick - you have to keep communicating that in and as you add new employees, or employees change or situations change, you have to keep communicating or living those values. But if you don't stop and listen, then you won't ever get that pulse back."

"A lot of leaders like talking, and not always listening. But actually, I think the communication comes first, but you have to be very deliberate in what you communicate. Get the message out there, listen to what's coming back, get the message out there, listen to what's coming back. So it's an obvious one - but it's communicate."

"There's a bunch of different ways and different things that you can communicate, but that's really the starting point."

How can we redefine our values?

Hannah: Just going back to the values, if there was a company looking to redefine us starting from defining those values what advice would you give them?

Jonathan: "The starting point I think depends on the size of a company. So going back to that small business from earlier, if you've got three, four, five, maybe even up to ten employees, I think the values are the values of the leaders - usually the founders the owners. I think it's important for these leaders to set the direction. So a little bit controversial maybe, around 10 employees it's a bit difficult, but the leaders have got to almost impose those values on the organization, because they're the ones that have to live the values - if they don't live it, then the values don't happen as the organization gets bigger, then you have to involve the team more and more."

"So to take us as an organization, when we first started, three, four, five, six, seven, eight of us, the values were what we believed we wanted the organization to be and how the the organization would behave. The last time we revisited those values, (and we've revised them, refined them, maybe three or four times) the last time we did that, we had a bunch of guys in from the company, and so a bunch of people from around the organization, and we looked at our existing value set we got a good understanding as to  how the organization was thinking now we were bigger, and revise them that way."

"Maybe in a very big organization, then you have to involve an awful lot more people, but I don't think you can do values by committee or by consensus, I think the organization has got the values. I tend to say every organization has got its values and its culture, even if it doesn't know it. If it's not been deliberate about it, the culture will still be there, the values will be there, but nobody will know about it and nobody will know whether to nurture it or not."

"So I think it's taking that pulse in a smaller organization, but it's down to the leaders in a slightly bigger organization start to involve more and more people, because it's got to be believed and understood across the business."

How can we bring company values to life?

Hannah: So we've got a few ways here how we bring and keep our values alive, and that's a huge part of who we are as a business. We hire by them, fire buy them, reward, recognize - do you have any actionable takeaways or insights on how businesses can do that?

Jonathan: "Again, it sort of comes down to the size of the organization. The smaller the organization, they just have to happen - people have to see them. It's sort of values by osmosis maybe, it's just just got to be there - everybody's got to feel it. As the organization gets bigger and more disparate, then I think you need to have some artefacts, some reminders."

"Too many people lead with 'oh, we need the values on coffee cups, on posters and stuff like that' and that's okay, but it is true as an organization gets bigger you need to trip over the values to be reminded, or some people do. So number one is just just live them and don't be afraid as a leader to question in a meeting or to question yourself, and when somebody comes to you for a  decision or to talk something through, I would always rather start with the values. We have a value, in fact our number one value is 'people first', so if you look after your people they'll look after the rest. When you have a value of 'people first', you don't have to think 'do we always put people first?' So in the meeting agendas, if we have a whole company meeting, is the people bit at the beginning? Because if it's not, then we're clearly not demonstrating our values."

"I think at the beginning, it's just got to be living it and questioning it and always bringing it into the conversation. As the organization gets bigger, you need some artefacts to to help make it happen, but they're not a replacement for actually living it."

How can we keep culture alive remotely?

Hannah: So what kind of things are you seeing changing during the pandemic, during COVID, during the times where we're not all together the same, what kind of things are you seeing companies do to keep the culture alive?

Jonathan: "We've had some fantastic examples during the the culture leaders list. In truth, the initiatives are many and varied. Some bigger organizations had more money to spend, others were really grassroots. I think the number one thing is to get people together in whatever way you can. Towards the end [of social distancing & lockdowns] we were all suffering from zoom fatigue, but actually getting everybody together for a different reason, or for with a slightly different mindset, you can get that conversation going again."

"I think it's really interesting with the dynamic of online meetings of Zoom and Teams, I think there's very different ways that you can do that. We saw lots of companies who were trialling different things such as the quizzes, teams getting together for virtual lunches. The organizations that were really being very deliberate about protecting their culture were the ones that weren't afraid to try things, you know they had that experimental mindset that we're going to make this work - 'I don't know how it's going to work, but we're going to make that work!"

"I also think very early on in the pandemic, a lot of organizations that were very deliberate about culture actually said to their teams - 'we don't know how this is going to work, but we're going to try damn hard to make it work. We don't have all the answers but we're going to work together to make it happen, to find a way through.' That's probably the number one tip I would say, is that it is so much about honesty now - being truthful, not being frightening, but actually being honest and true with people." Saying, 'you know what - how do you see this working? What can we do to make this happen?"

Hannah: Exactly, and now that we know more, how do you see that working in practice?

Jonathan: "We're entering the wonderful wacky world of hybrid working, whatever that is. For me, that's so much more than office or home, it's actually being able to try and fit the way of working, the new way of working into how the organization thinks and ticks, mixing that with how the individual employees work and how best they can perform during it."

"So I would encourage, if anybody hasn't got their hybrid working worked out, forget about the name of hybrid working - get conversations going with people. Try and understand how people feel. We've had people who have thrived working at home, we've had people who have hated every minute of it. We've had people who thought they loved, it but actually the moment they got back into the office they realized just how much they missed the office, so there's no one shape fits all. There's no Harvard business review article that's going to solve the hybrid working, it's just get out there and get those conversations going again."

"I would say for most organizations, get back together. We had our summer party about 10 days ago and it was just fantastic to see everybody again."

Hannah: Definitely! What kind of pulse would you say that you're seeing at the moment, in terms of the times and regularity that people are coming together as a business?

Jonathan: "You're right in that it depends on the organization, it depends on that culture again. I think we've got a lot of catching up to do. I truly believe that if you went into the pandemic, into lockdown, with a really tip-top culture, that culture's been eroded. No matter how much you do to try and top it up, something about that culture has been eroded over the last 15-18 months. So I would say start getting your people back together, start getting the teams back together, get that conversation going again."

"It's not going to pick up where it was, because, even in the best of times, you're not the same a year and a half later than you were a year and a half ago. So get those conversations going again, and I would say get them going in a different way. Meet in different ways, get together in different groups, different structures, different environments. Try and get people settled back into the idea of what's it like to be with a bunch of people again, because for some it's scary."

"Why wouldn't it be, we all have our comfort zones and if we don't step outside of our comfort zones then our comfort zones get smaller in lockdown. So many people's comfort zones have centred around staying in, of not getting new experiences,  and we need to move towards our 'stretch zone'. The business coach I work with called Ian Windall talks a lot about you needing to get inside your 'stretch zone' because that's where growth happens, that's where you begin to live."

How can we support the well-being of our team?

Hannah: I guess that touches on well-being a little bit. How much of a factor is well-being in culture, and how have you seen people supporting the well-being of their teams?

Jonathan: "I mean, it's huge. It going to be the topic of the coming years. I think there's a lot of work that we as organizations need to do around well-being, and we can't solve everybody's problems, and we shouldn't try. But, we have to recognize that if we want people to come to work being themselves, then we have to recognize that there's a well-being issue to work with there."

"Something else that came out in the the cultural economy report was just how few organizations had well-being in place. I think that's essential, and that's got to come from the leaders again, so it's important to build some form of well-being program. It doesn't have to be grand, it doesn't have to be expensive. I'm a great believer in the one-to-one - everybody I think in an organization should have a one-to-one with somebody that they report to, and that one-to-one, part of it is for the leader or the manager to get a good feeling for how that person is at that moment in time, because well-being changes. You can have somebody who's seemingly perfectly well, and on top of the world one moment, but then the next day something has tipped their stress level up that little extra bit and it's really a case of trying to spot that."

How does L&D feed in to company culture?

Hannah: Definitely, and how do you think learning and development feeds into culture?

Jonathan: "We talk a lot around here about having a growth mindset. I think it's a really healthy place to be, to have that growth mindset, to be constantly learning and developing your skills. I think in a small organization, it's very tempting to say 'we just don't have time for that'. I think L&D is a bit like HR, it's one of those big company terms, but actually when you come down to it, L&D is all about just helping your people grow or, better still, helping them grow themselves."

"I see it as being as being essential - not everybody can do it at every moment, every day of their lives, but I think it's essential that everybody has a chance to grow. Whatever direction that is, is sort of almost entirely up to them. But yes, I think it's just a core part of who we are as humans."

Hannah: One of our core values here is learn and improve - that's not just about formal learning or reading a book, it's about being curious, asking why and how we can be better, constantly thinking it's that whole growth mindset again.

Jonathan: "I had a question on a podcast last week which was: 'Why do you keep talking about growth? -  Growth isn't always good' and I think it's very true. Growth for growth's sake can be sometimes unhealthy, but actually there's something about us as human beings that, when we're in the right frame of mind, when we've got enough space to start thinking and growing, and moving ourselves forward, growth can be thought of as actually just progressing forward rather than feeling like we're stuck and stationary."

Hannah: Exactly, that's a great point. I think growth can be subjective - so we say here [at accessplanit] we would rather be great, than giant. So it's about growing in the right ways.

Jonathan: "That's a fantastic way of putting it, on the flip side is that, as a world economy we're constantly striving for growth, and I think that's causing us an awful lot of trouble. But you know, that's just a growth in material things, which we're finding out now isn't very healthy. Growth as people, on the other hand, I think it's just part of who we are."

How can we demonstrate culture in recruitment?

Hannah: Definitely! At present, there's a lot of recruitment issues in all kinds of industries, how would you advise using a culture as a selling point and a differentiator when hiring?

Jonathan: "I think there's a number of different stages of hiring. First off, I see hiring as being a sales and marketing exercise now. We need to be putting ourselves forward, we need to be doing it in advance of actually when we need people, so we need to be talking about the way we operate as an organization."

"I would say this, but things like the culture leaders list or any of the culture awards, I think are really useful ways of (a) testing your culture, but (b) once you've tested it of actually shouting about it. So I would say try get ahead of the game - get your culture flowing, get it working, and then get some recognition for it."

"When it comes to actually putting the message out there, the job descriptions, the job adverts, that's the place where you put your culture. Don't write a very flat description if you're an organization that's bright and bubbly, equally if you're a fairly flat, conservative organization, don't try and write a bubbly and breezy job description. The way you put yourself out there has got to reflect your culture."

"Then, when it comes into maybe the most important part, when you get people to come in to see you - share who you are, share how you feel. With online interviewing - we've all found it can work, but actually get that person into the organization now if you can, get them to meet different people, and get them to have a feel for how you are as an organization. Not every culture is going to be right for every person, so it's very much a two-way street. We've got to move fast, often with hiring, because people are moving fast, jobs are being filled very quickly. So we've got to move fast, but I would urge people to not throw caution to the wind, and move too fast - better to have the right person than to try and correct the mistake further down the line."

"So start to project your culture into everything you do around the recruitment process. That's certainly where we see  organizations who are doing some great work."

Hannah: In line with that trend, are you seeing marketing teams and HR/Talent teams working a lot more collaboratively?

Jonathan: "Yeah it's an interesting question, because I hadn't really thought about it like that. I'm seeing a lot of HR teams who are thinking much more around how to market the role, how to sell the role. I think it would be some really interesting work to give the job description to the content person, or to get marketing involved."

What single piece of advice can help us create a great company culture?

Hannah: This might be a difficult one, but if you could narrow it down to one single piece of advice to anyone creating a great company culture, what would advice be?

Jonathan: "I'm going to try and get beyond the single word of communicate! I would say, sit down and have meaningful conversations with people in your organization. If you're 20 people, sit down with all 20, and don't assume that everybody knows everything. Back to sales and marketing again, it used to be seven times you had to say a sales message before somebody got it, I think it's now probably more like 10 or 15. It's exactly the same with your people, is to sit down with them and keep sharing what's going on and how you're feeling, and build the picture of the organization that they're part of, because sooner or later they will believe they're part of it, and start sharing it."

"I was listening to the talk just before this one on customer experience - I was fascinated that one of the number one things that was raised there was 'deliver on your promises'. Well, that's got to be number one when it comes to your team as well. Don't over promise, and if you don't know what's happening, then tell them and try and work it out. But when you say you're gonna do something, for goodness sake do it, or explain why you haven't done it."

Hannah: Definitely, yeah, I don't know if you agree, but I think more and more customers and employees are becoming interchangeable - surely we need to serve them in exactly the same way?

Jonathan: "Of course, that's the massive argument for getting diversity in your team, because that way you do reflect your customer community as well. So, absolutely, I think there's a real merge there going on, no matter what kind of business you're in."

How can we change a company culture that's fully remote?

Matt: We've had a couple of questions come through, mainly related to COVID,  in terms of how it's changed the workplace. For a company that's now gone fully remote in its infrastructure, are there any tips or advice you could share about how to change a company culture that is now fully remote?

Jonathan: "Yeah, I think I think that's a real challenge. I can understand why organizations have gone there. I would say, look at organizations that have always been fully remote, so number one recognize the challenge, often they're in the tech space. Some of the early ones like Skype, or the other other big tech organizations that started fully remote - see what they do, see how they operate. I think there's got to be a temptation that when you go fully remote to think that you need to communicate less - you've got to communicate more, and you've got to do it in a different way."

"I would always say, always pull the team together at some point, regularly. There's a company that I've been involved with for quite a few years, where we have no offices but we have people in Sweden, Norway and London, and we choose a central location and pull them all together, usually once a quarter. That's such an important thing to do."

Hannah: Yeah there's a company - I can't think of their name now, but they do annual retreats and I think the last one pre-pandemic was Disneyland, so that's a nice little trip for everyone!

Jonathan: "Absolutely, and if you're not in the world of tech, where there's traditionally been money sloshing around, then their retreats can be very much, smaller than that. It's better to do something that's smaller, than to try and wait for another year to do the big one."

How can we implement a culture strategy?

Matt: We heard in the last talk from Lizzie and Aimee about implementing a customer experience strategy, what advice would you give a company who are looking to implement a culture strategy - where would you advise them to start if they're trying to implement a culture strategy?

Jonathan: "It's a little bit of a difficult one, I think mixing those two words, culture and strategy, are both very different things that are joined at the hip. In many ways, I'm not sure you can be strategic about culture - the word I use is deliberate. Strategic about culture sounds a bit like you're going to force it, and that's probably a wrong way of starting. But, to take  what I think you were meaning there, is no, I would say sit down with your people in groups, in individuals, take a pulse, take an understanding, try and work out what those values are, try and start to give some idea as to where the organization is going or where you want it to go. Then, start to mould something around what might be a culture."

Matt: Has there been any change in culture or the the implementation of culture pre-COVID and post-COVID? Obviously, now that the working space has changed and people's thoughts and feelings from remote work has changed, have you seen any differences or is the the advice and the thinking exactly the same?

Jonathan: "I think I'd start with - there's never a better time to start than now. So whether you're pre-COVID, post-COVID, wherever, always start now. Having said that,  there's definitely something around when we were all working from home or furloughed, it was easier than it is now. So there's a massive change going on in that when you have to have meetings and everybody's working from home, or you have to bring on a new employee and everybody's working from home, that's actually much easier than where you are now, where some people are at home and some are not. For instance, we're going through a transition at the moment where we say there are no mixed meetings - everybody's either all face to face or all online because the moment you get a meeting of five people and three are in the room and two are in their separate houses, you've got different paces going on, you've got different understandings going on, and it's difficult."

"So I would say that  we're in the hardest part now of actually getting people to understand the new way of working. There is a definite change; I don't think we know what it's like to be  deliberately, out of choice, all working remotely, because we didn't have the choice. We know what it's like to be forced - one day you're all in the office the next day you're not, and we're learning now what it's like to be in that transition stage."