Intentional Culture Creation Tools: Using A Culture Coach

This is part of a series of post looking at tools that companies have used to intentionally create culture.

Joanna Kirtley is a former employee of Jump Associates. Jump Associates brought on a culture coach right after the firm was founded. I interviewed Joanna about how this affected the company's culture.

"Jump was founded by five people, and the founders decided to hire an external culture coach right away. The coach’s name is Sarah Singer-Nourie. Her role is to go into companies and lead workshops to help define goals for workplace culture and then develop culture tools. When I joined Jump, I was given a “culture tools” packet. It had materials and frameworks, such as a “How to have uncomfortable conversations” guide. This guide had different steps that employees could take to confront someone. A good portion of it felt over the top, but it also felt like there was a framework for it, so in case I ever need to have an uncomfortable conversation, it was there. In many workplaces, people avoid uncomfortable conversations. In my current workplace, I only have uncomfortable conversations with my core team.

The culture helped inform the hiring process. Every new employee was brought up through a four-month “externship,” which basically meant employees were hired on a temporary basis to see if they were a cultural fit.

Jump has a super strong culture of feedback. They have a weekly feedback meeting with the whole company. Each week, one person stands in front of the whole company and presents something he or she is working on. People then give honest feedback on the content and style of the presentation. Everyone is trying to help everyone improve. You grew thick skin.

The staircase in the Jump Associates offices

The staircase in the Jump Associates offices

We also had daily stand up meetings called scrums. It was almost cultish. The entire company stood around the big staircase in the middle of the office, and the leader of the scrum stood on the staircase. It was a big deal. All of us wanted to work our way up to leading a scrum.

The culture was so powerful that I refer back to my time at Jump constantly when I’m thinking about creating a culture where I work now, at Capital One Labs. Sure, there were parts of the culture that were too much. A lot of the culture was geared towards extroversion, and I’m an introvert. But, the strong culture made the connections I had with my fellow employees stronger, and I am still in touch with many of them.

This was a very top down approach to culture, and it wouldn’t work for every organization. For example, at Capital One Labs, I could see our team bringing in an external culture coach to help us define our own culture goals, but we are not the type of people who would want the culture to be imposed from the top down. It would feel disingenuous. Also, at Capital One, there is a larger corporate bank culture that would be very uncomfortable with what Jump did. We wouldn’t want to get so insular with our culture. Our culture is more inclusionary."

Two more references to Jump's Intentional Culture:

1) The Wall Street Journal included Jump Associates on its list of Top Small Workplaces in 2008. Here's an excerpt from that interview:

"When the four founders of Jump Associates LLC were building the company, they wanted to avoid the ultracompetitive, sometimes back-stabbing, atmosphere found at other high-energy consulting agencies. So, early on, they began adopting a series of practices that promote considerate collaboration.

Every morning, all employees meet for a "scrum" -- a short get-together where they're briefed on company news, do yogalike exercises and then play a quick brain-rousing game that forces them to think on their feet.

Jump employees are also subject to a "no zinger" policy that bans them from saying anything demeaning or hurtful about another employee. What's more, employees are asked to occasionally do so-called affinity exercises, where employees ask others to declare one thing they like about them and ask other ice-breaker-type questions. The person who responded then poses those questions to the person who originally asked them. And a coach stops in the office a few days a month to help employees with any issue, such as improving their communications or resolving conflicts with a colleague.

"There are companies that try to systematize the nastier instincts in people," says co-founder and Chief Executive Dev Patnaik. At Jump, "we try to put in systems that make people better than they otherwise would be."

The layout and interior design of the office are also meant to spark team building. All employees, including all senior management, sit out in the open in "neighborhoods" of five or six workers.

Senior management also believes in relying on the latest team-building research and methods to improve effectiveness and camaraderie. New employees all take learning and skills-assessment tests. Everyone's strengths are then listed on a poster in the office in hopes that those skills will be used and talked about on a regular basis to improve team performance.

The test told Colleen Murray, a 35-year-old project lead who started in 2003, that among her top strengths are being disciplined, responsible and deliberative. Her disciplined nature, she says, makes her a natural at spearheading projects and setting goals and deadlines. Managers say they took those qualities into account when moving her into leadership roles."

2) Jump Associates has it's a post on its blog outlining the six steps to a thriving culture. Read more here.