Culturevist Chats With Max St John


Hi Max, could you introduce yourself to our community? Tell us a bit about you...

I'm a dad of two small boys living in Brighton, my last job was MD of NixonMcInnes and I've just started an alternative business school called Wild Things. I've spent the past 12 years working in/consulting with large organisations. I started out in digital marketing and over the years became more interested in why people do what they do, and how to make their lives better. I realised its people's individual mindset and beliefs about themselves and their work that creates successful businesses that are good for human beings, so I set up a school to focus on that.


How do you define organisational culture?

For me, organisational culture is a way of describing 'how things are round here.' It's both intangible and at the same time massively powerful - we use words like 'vibrant' or 'toxic'. This is because its just shortcut for summing up the experience of being in a particular environment, around a set of behaviours.

My all-time favourite definition of organisational culture is from Peter Senge - the learning organisations guy. He said culture consists of three things: 

1. Our practices - what we do around here, our work habits, patterns and routines.
2. Our values - not the ones on the website or from the values workshops, the ones that show up in how we treat each other.
3. Our unchallenged assumptions - how things work round here, the stuff that just 'is'.

I think this sums it up perfectly.


I’d love to hear some examples that demonstrate/were a result of the Nixon McInnes culture. Can you share a few? 

Some of the things that set us apart were our radical transparency, our commitment to making sure everyone had a voice, and the flexibility and autonomy people had by default.

We practiced open book accounting - everyone got a copy of the financials every month, and were able to question any aspect of them. We all knew what everyone earned, and we set salaries in a completely open, democratic process led by an elected team.

Any big decisions were put to the whole company. We had a monthly all-hands where anyone could bring any issue for discussion, and the board were obliged to not just run decisions by the team, we had to consult with everyone, and put it to them to vote. 

Everyone was able to set their own working hours, choose their clients, shape their work, bring in associates, spend money on the company's behalf (within reason).

There were a number of other practices that seemed to really inspire people in other companies - Church of Fail was our way of celebrating failure, openly, in order to make it easier to learn (rather than hide 'mistakes'), and happy buckets was about having an idea of general happiness levels in the team using tennis balls in two buckets. We saw clients and other companies around the world take on these ideas and put them into practice.


What were some of your main learnings about culture from your experiences with Nixon McInnes?

I think personal responsibility is the key ingredient to a culture that supports human beings to do great things.

By this I mean: Can people own their stuff? When things get difficult, can they be honest about how they're feeling? Can they allow others to make mistakes without blaming or judging them? Can they take feedback as information not criticism?

Because the lighter, fun stuff is really important - but if, when times get tough or mistakes are made, people start blaming each other, sweep things under the carpet or take things very personally, then it all starts to get messy and stressful very quickly. 

I think this is why people find the idea of transparency, autonomy and democracy at work a bit scary - because we assume people aren't capable of taking responsibility.

My experience is different - if you're honest, trust people and listen to what they have to say, you've got the foundations for a great culture.


The hardest but most important part of this is knowing it starts with you. Particularly when you're in a leadership position. You can't expect anyone else to do something you're not willing to step up yourself.

At NixonMcInnes, we put in place the conditions - practices like open book accounting, flexible working etc - but also put a lot of emphasis on support - coaching, communications training, calling out the behaviours that weren't helping. 


How much do you think the culture of an organisation is shaped by the founder and/or CEO, and how much is shaped by the rest of the employees or others?

Founder and CEO are often very different roles, I think. The Founder is the person who sets the intention for the whole project. It's their ideas, biases and ambitions that set the whole thing up. 

Of course, then other people add to it - in the case of a CEO, they might have a big influence - but they're playing on someone else's field. When the two things don't line up, or the founder gives it all away, that's when company's can start losing their way. 

In terms of the rest of the company, I'd relate it back to Peter Senge's three components of culture.

The Founder, and the early team, set out some of those 'unchallenged assumptions' about how things work around here. This might change over time, but more slowly. These are the invisible boundaries set for everyone else to create change within. 

The rest of us can have more influence and create more change at a values and practices level. How we choose to think, speak and behave, and what kind of collective routines, habits and patterns we set up.


If someone asked you for advice on how they could develop the culture of their organisation, what would you say?

Start with you, in your day-to-day job. And start now. Don't worry about anyone else, or finding some ideal time in the future. 

The only thing you can change is yourself, and if you don't start with doing it for yourself and doing it fully, then what you go on to do will lack integrity. And people will feel that a mile away.

If there's something you think needs to change, then start small, start today and do it with total integrity and heart. There's nothing more powerful than this.

Run your meetings differently, call out the unhelpful behaviour that's holding you and your team back, smile at everyone in your office on the way to your desk. Whatever it is you'd like to change, embody it fully.


If someone wanted to see how the culture of their organisation changes over time, how would you suggest they measure it?

10 years ago, everyone was trying to find a way to measure the ROI of social media. I worry that we might get that way with culture. And what you measure grows, so you need to be really conscious of what you're choosing to report on, to who and why.

It's such a visceral, felt-sense thing - you can only really measure it by asking people. So I'd just do that - get people together and ask them to reflect on how things were, what was life like round here and how things are now. Because it's experiential, that's the best way to capture it too, record videos, ask people to draw it. 


What do you say to people who say it's not possible for a company to be both large (10,000+ employees) and have a great culture?

I think a lot of it comes down to what people see as great. We're still stuck in a very black-and-white mindset, particularly in UK/Europe and the US. No culture is has singularly positive aspects to it. There has to be a flipside to everything. If you have massive trust and flexibility, you often get people working long hours and getting stressed from time to time, for example. 

It's how you deal with it that matters.

I worked with one organisation that had nearly 15,000 staff across hundreds of offices. If you asked people if they'd like to change certain aspects of the culture, they'd all say yes and complain bitterly about something. But, if you asked them if they were proud of the organisation, their team and the work, they'd say yes with just as much enthusiasm.

One of the ways the world needs to grow up a bit when it comes to business is not looking to paint things as either good or bad, or limit our ambitions based on unhelpful stories like 'big business = bad for humans'.

It's all about how you choose to show up, and what you believe to be possible. And if you can just see things for what they are, and do what you believe in, then I think you can create whatever you want.

I guess the proviso is that if we're talking about how we experience being in a big business, then it is harder and slower to create change when it is needed. And there are also people with more influence and more responsibility when it comes to creating a great culture.

If the founder, or the CEO and their team don't want to embody trust, openness and taking responsibility, then you can't expect everyone else to. 


And when we're talking about listed companies that need to show impressive results in order for these people to keep their jobs, then of course they're feeling extreme pressure. And that might conflict with a need for a more conscious and enlightened approach to business - the kind that fosters great cultures. 


Now that you have a new beginning with Wild Things, what are you doing differently related to the culture of your organisation?

Something I think we're a bit allergic to in business is admitting we don't know, or asking for help. We keep things close to our chest and worry in silence.

From the start of Wild Things - before it even had a name - I shared the idea online, said I had no clue about what I was doing and asked if people could help me. This is what's carried the whole thing so far.

So I think this is core to the culture and attitude of the school, being open, being honest, asking for help and working with what comes up.

And at the moment, I've got no official team, just a series of relationships based on my needs and someone else's desire to do something. And where it's appropriate, there's money involved. 

But it always starts with the individual's needs - my need to get something done, and someone else's need to contribute or create. Again, I think this idea of being clear about your needs and working out how we can help each other to get them met, is key to the school.

And lastly - I'm working in equal partnership with the people who show up at the door, giving them space to bring their ideas and make things happen, and at the same time, I'm very clear what the school stands for, what its purpose is, and I'm going to be totally dogmatic about that.


What are the top 3 books that have influenced your work?

1. Nonviolent communication: a language of life by Marshall Rosenberg - I read this five years ago and it changed how I relate to myself and others. It's all about understanding where difficulty comes from, how to manage yourself and how to turn conflict and misunderstanding into better relationships and creative outcomes.
2. Five dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni - this is such a cliched and cheesy 'business fable' but I love it. At its heart it's about doing the right thing, in a way that serves the purpose of the organisation and the human development of its people, even when it's hard.

3. Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle - one of those mind-blowing books you have to be ready for. Essentially, it's just about being present, being fully open to what's happening now, instead of being distracted with regrets about the past or worries about the future. If you can get past the spiritual-ness of it - then it's a really powerful book. 


What's the best piece of advice you've received?

I have a pretty terrible memory - even for good advice. But there is a quote I heard three years back which stopped me in my tracks. It popped up again the other day and it hit me just as hard. It's two lines from a poem by Mary Oliver:

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?"

I love this because it's so simple, and challenging. We'll spend two-thirds of our life 'at work', so what do I want that to be like? How do I want to show up? What do I want my kids' experience of me to be? What do I want this one life to be like?


What's something we wouldn’t know about you by looking at you?

I have two little boys, five months and four years old - they're the most important thing in the universe to me, and everything I do is in some way about building a better world for them and their generation. 

Although you might know this by the looking at my bloodshot eyes and early onset of wrinkles :)


Thanks, Max


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Culturevist Chats with Rose Stott, Head of HR, Paperchase

Hi Rose, could you introduce yourself to our community? Tell us a bit about you...

Well, I work at Paperchase (a stationery and gifting retailer) heading up the HR team.  I’ve worked here for five years now, and before that I worked for Danish retailer Bestseller.  I first started coming to Culturevist events about a year ago, when my sister-in-law invited me along – she knows what a geek I am when it comes to all things HR and culture related!


How do you define organisational culture?

For me, the culture of a business is the collective character of its people; it’s a set of behaviours, tastes, opinions, preferences and habits that are (largely unconsciously) adopted and that form a distinct identity.  I think an organisation’s culture is demonstrated through deeds; it’s self-defining and evolves over time in response to feedback and learning experiences.  But, despite this evolution and constant re-invention, I think that a healthy culture will have a continuous, common thread – a certain ‘something’ that remains true to itself over time, and despite changing external factors.

Within Paperchase, our culture is largely synonymous with our brand, in that the same language is generally used to describe both – we’re fun, creative, dynamic, trend and fashion focused, playful, colourful, we value quality… and we’re a little maverick in our approach.  We like to think that we’re the only retailer doing what we do on the high street (in terms of our products and our in-store experience), and as a result our people tend to be a little different too.  Our culture is very supportive of individual expression and personal choice; we give people the space to be themselves at work, just as we provide products to our customers that they won’t find anywhere else and that allow them to express a little bit of themselves.

Could you share one of your favourite examples of something that happened that really represented the culture of Paperchase and made you proud?

One of my favourites is from last year.  We designed a product range that we felt was very edgy and that our customers would respond well too, as there was nothing else like it on the high street.  Unfortunately, the range didn’t sell as well as we’d hoped for, and the temptation was for us to spend lots of time trying to figure out why – was it the products, the design, the time of year, etc?

Instead of ignoring the issue, or allowing the conversation to turn to negative, our CEO took the opportunity at the next company update to publically acknowledge the failure.  He explained that, far from being a negative, the occasional failure of our designs was a necessary component in our success – that we needed to continue to surprise our customers and innovate in our design choices if we’re to stay ahead of the competition and maintain our reputation as an innovative retailer.  The message was clear:

If we’re not failing occasionally then we’re not being brave enough, and the important thing is how we recover from our failures and not lose our nerve in the future. 


Could you share your experience of introducing frameworks (or other formal processes) to shape culture?

When I joined Paperchase five years ago it quickly became apparent that the creative element of our culture was predominant, and that we had very little structure or process in place as a result.  There are some advantages to this of course, but from an employee experience point of view I also believe that it’s important to have clarity over things like performance expectations, reward and incentive structures, development opportunities, etc.  None of this is possible without structure, and so my focus in the first few years here was about finding ways to introduce more consistent people practices, to create a more open and egalitarian culture.

We implemented a competency framework four years ago, which defines the expectations for every role in the business, both in terms of what people do (the results they need to achieve), and how they do it (the behaviours that we value and reward).

This has been very successful in helping to increase the amount of feedback in the business (previously a relative rarity), and has also allowed us to implement fairer and more far-reached training and succession opportunities for our people.  Both of these changes have been broadly positive in terms of our overall business culture, but there have been some detrimental impacts too, that I now think we need to address.


One Of The Mistakes We Made Was Imposing The Competency Framework Onto The Business, Rather Than Drawing It From The Business – We Did It To Them, Rather Than With Them.  


One of the focuses for my team and I now, is finding a way of identifying the characteristics of our most successful ‘Paperchasers’ and using this as a kind of recipe for what good looks like in our business.  This will then form the content of a more flexible framework that will supersede our existing tools and processes, and will be more ‘on brand’ for our culture as a result.

If someone asked you for advice on how they could develop the culture of their organisation, what would you say?

I think the first and most important thing is to speak to as many people as possible about the current company culture, and the history of the business.  It’s important not to rely on one perspective, but to get feedback and input from as wide a population as possible.  Speaking to people of all levels, roles and length of service helps you to more fully understand the complexity of a culture – you can’t set about making changes unless you fully understand where you’re starting from, and the heritage that the culture carries with it.

Look out for stories that your people tell one another about the business – these form your unique mythos and will describe your company’s character like nothing else.  

In terms of then trying to change a culture, I think my main advice would be to be very cautious! I made the mistake when I first joined Paperchase of focusing too much what I wanted to change – and overlooking the reasons behind the choices that had been made.  So, for example, I wanted to make the culture fairer and more transparent by introducing clearer policies and processes (relating to conduct, benefits, pay, etc).  But, this has inadvertently led to an over-reliance on policy, and an unwillingness of our line managers to make discretionary calls for their people. This is disempowering for everyone (and frustrating for my team) so is something that is now a focus for us to rectify; we need to readdress the balance and demonstrate more trust in the judgement of individuals to act with the best interests of both our employees and the company in mind.

If someone wanted to see how the culture of their organisation changes over time, how would you suggest they measure it?

I don’t feel there is any easy answer to this question…  As a retail business, we’re very data driven and have a breadth of measures that we use to monitor business performance, covering both customer and employee data.  For us, employee turnover is a key indicator that we use to (indirectly) measure employee engagement.  Of course, it doesn’t come close to measuring our culture, but it does serve as a useful metric to help kick-start conversations about our people, the mood of the business and how people are feeling about working for us…

Ultimately, I suppose an organisation’s culture is subjective by its very nature – it’s about individual experiences day to day, how people are feeling about the business at any one time.  I think it’s important that culture be a constant topic of conversation within the organisation – but it’s also important to realise that there are no definitive answers, since what’s right for your business and culture today may be wrong next week.  For me, the most important thing is simply to make sure that your culture is factored in to decisions, so that changes aren’t made without considering the effect they may have on your people.

How do you feel that retail differs culturally to other industries?

Retail is an extremely pacey environment, as we have to respond quickly to changing trends and customer behaviour, which are both hard to predict and impossible to control.  As such, the industry tends to attract people who are adrenaline junkies, pragmatic problem solvers, and who enjoy seeing tangible outcomes for their work – one of the most satisfying things about working in retail is being able to walk through a store and see our customers enjoying the product.  

Most retailers operate on very tight margins, which mean that the smallest changes can have massive effects for us. As a result, we’re constantly monitoring our performance and making adjustments based on the feedback.  

Probably the best analogy is sailboat racing; it’s a team sport with multiple opponents, it involves having a long term strategy but one that can be adjusted for short term tactical needs, and you’re at the whim of a whole raft of external factors beyond your control – including the weather!

I’m sure there are loads of parallels to other industries that share this need to be constantly responsive, so it’s not as though retail is unique – but I do think that we demand exceptional levels of resilience from our people.  

What's the best piece of advice you've received?

It’s not advice per se, but something that my Nan used to say to me when I was young has really stuck with me – and has probably shaped a lot of my decisions as an adult: “be good – or don’t get caught!”

What are the top 3 books that have influenced your work?

One of my main influences at the moment is Marcus Buckingham’s ‘First, break all the rules’.  I read this for the first time last year and it completely changed my views of line management and the purpose of performance management systems.  It speaks about no longer trying to create the ‘perfect employee’ by offering remedial training (on time management, presentation skills, etc) but instead embracing each individuals’ unique skill set and innate talents.  For me this makes so much sense in the context of Paperchase, where a huge part of our brand and our culture is about celebrating individuality and personal expression.

Other favourite books that I return to time and again (and that must therefore influence my thinking indirectly, I guess) include Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: an inquiry into values’ (which talks about the relationship between quality, value and truth, and highlights the need to do quality work to live a purposeful life) and Alain de Botton’s ‘The pleasures and sorrows of work’ (which is very much as the title indicates – a discussion about the both the best and worst aspects of work, with interesting insights and advice to make working life more meaningful and rewarding).

What's something we wouldn’t know about you by looking at you?

Er…. That I’m a computer games geek, I guess…?  I’m a bit of a collector in general, and have managed to accumulate consoles of pretty much every variety.  The good news is my husband is a gaming geek too, so I’m in good company…!

Thanks Rose!


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Culturevist Chats With Adam Pisoni, Co-Founder Of Yammer

In 2008 Adam Pisoni co-founded a company that, after 4 years, was bought for U.S. $1.2 billion and had helped hundreds of thousands of organisations become more open. I was fortunate to work with Adam and co-founder David Sacks during that time at Yammer, and gained an insight into what made the company's culture so special. Adam's now devoting his time to improving U.S. K12 (primary and secondary) education, and continues to be active as co-founder of Responsive.Org. I'm delighted to introduce him to our community in the series: 'Culturevist Chats With...'.

Matt: So Adam, to start us off, how do you define organisational culture?

Adam: With a “Z” not an “S”. Just kidding. People often talk about culture as something which can be added extrinsically to a company. As if it's separate from the work itself. I believe a companies culture is just the social manifestation of the organizational system or operating model of that company. For example, if you employ performance management systems which encourage competition, you will likely have a culture where collaboration is harder. If you have tons of rules dictating every aspect of people's jobs, you will have a culture without much trust. One thing that is often missed is the link between the organizational system, the leadership and the culture. You'd be right in thinking leadership often is the one that sets the cultural tone. For example, if leaders tend to be secretive, you'll also have issues with trust and collaboration. However, you have to remember how the leaders got there. They were promoted because they did well within the rules of the system. So if the system encouraged competition, the people who are good at being competitive will rise up the ranks and reinforce that cultural tone. In fact, it may be too simplistic to say it's merely the system. Culture is the feedback loop between the people and practices of the system. Therefore, changing culture requires creating and reinforcing new feedback loops with new practices and different (or changed) people.

Matt: Did you have much of an understanding of what organisational culture is before you co-founded Yammer? How did you learn about culture and its importance?

Adam: I did have strong feelings about culture before Yammer, but they were naive to the challenges faced by large companies. I've always had a bit of an anti-establishment chip on my shoulder. So when I started my own company in the 90s I really wanted to avoid there being an “us” vs. “them” mentality anywhere in the company, be it between management and employees or sales and engineers. We largely succeeded, but that company only got as large as 30 people. Later I went on to work at other larger companies and quickly learned how bad things can be when the mission doesn't resonate, the strategy isn't clear, and the people don't trust each other. I knew at Yammer we could do better. We also felt that a company which makes a product it claims improves culture should have a good culture. While some of our culture was because of things we did, I have to give credit to the benefits of transparency we got from using our own product for communication. It's a lot easier to trust people when you know you can see what they're doing and can contribute without friction. My biggest lesson though was really about mission. The importance of having a mission which resonates with your employees. Mistakes will be made, bad people will be hired and fired. Good people will leave. Companies are never perfect, but a strong mission can create tremendous latitude for inevitable mistakes.

Matt: When you were building and leading the company, were you particularly conscious of the impact of your actions and decisions on the culture and therefore deliberately do things differently, or did you just do what came to you naturally and the culture just happened as a result?

Adam: Some of both. We came in with some preconceived notions about culture. That we wanted people to feel empowered, have shared ownership, and feel comfortable trying and failing. We knew we valued collaboration over competition. We knew transparency would be a key to having a connected culture. But there was no guidebook that guaranteed success. So we also talked a lot about the second order effects our actions would have on our culture. It made decision making much harder, but we recognised the long term importance. We used to say, “Our job isn't just to build a great product. It's to build the company that builds great products.” That shift in focus from managing-by-directing to leading-by-enabling is not one you are taught in school. We had to iterate on how we led as much as on the product itself.

Matt: What do you say to people who say it's not possible for a company to be both large (10,000+ employees) and have a great culture?

Adam: First I'd say I can understand where that sentiment comes from. Most large companies don't do the best job encouraging every employee to bring their best, authentic selves to work. Some people think this is an inevitable function of size. I tend to take a longer view. Companies as we know them today have only been around for a blink of an eye in the history of humanity. We've had large organizations of various forms for much longer. A city is an organization of sorts. I think many people are happy with the culture of the city they live in. We've had other large organizations where people were happy with the culture as well. What's different in these orgs is that they aren't trying to extract labor from you, for a cause you may not believe in, in order to disproportionately benefit a small number of people who are disconnected from you. When you think of it that way it's no wonder companies don't have great cultures. It may seem utopian, but the idea of companies which have a massively transformative mission, employees who can apply their whole potential, benefit from their labor, and feel connected to the outcomes doesn't seem impossible to me. I'm with Peter Diamandis in hoping that technology will bring greater abundance, leading to a rewriting of the rules of markets and power itself.

Matt: If you founded another company, what would you do differently to help the culture be even more amazing than your previous experiences?

Adam: Kris Gale, the former VP of Engineering of Yammer used to say, “Winning feels like losing because you win by focusing on what you're losing at so you can improve.” I feel so proud of what we all built at Yammer and what it continues to represent today. But I feel like we, along with many other companies, were only just scratching the surface of what's possible. Back in 2008 when we started Yammer, there weren't tons of examples of 21st century startups pushing each other on things like transparent salaries, self-organizing teams, early focus on diversity, etc... It's exciting to watching people like Kris Gale go start other companies where he can take what we learned at Yammer and push even further.

Matt: Could you share one of your favourite examples of something that happened that really represented the culture of Yammer?

Adam: This may seem small, but it was the first thing that always come to my mind when I think about the culture of Yammer. Yammer employed many high paid, some might argue entitled, young startup employees. But we also employed people who helped manage our facilities, stocked the food cabinets, and delivered mail. In most companies I'd worked at or seen, those two groups wouldn't mingle much, but at Yammer, they even hung out after work. Any time we had a formal OR informal company event, you'd be sure to see support people there mingling, drinking and playing with everyone else. There was something really special to me that we had created a company where people were treated equally and with respect, no matter what your job was.

Matt: If someone asked you for advice on how they could improve the culture of their organisation, what would you say?

Adam: Cultures don't change easily. As I said above, culture is really a feedback loop between practice and people. Culture is usually held in dynamic tension by that complex system and resists change. I think the keys to changing culture are:

  1. Communicating (transparently) FAR more than you do today about the challenges and aspirations of the org.
  2. Listening even more than you are communicating, remembering that you should be communicating more than before. Not just listening for the sake of listening, but really hearing what people all up and down your company are telling you.
  3. Finding the organizational rules, practices and systems which are impacting culture and not being afraid to change them.
  4. And finally, leading by example. If something feels uncomfortable for you, imagine how it feels for everyone else. You doing it first will make it easier on everyone. 

Matt: Thanks Adam!



3 things you might like to do next:

1. Want to ask Adam a question about a specific aspect? Have a suggestion for who 'Culturevist Chats With' next? Post a comment below.

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Culturevist - Hiring For Culture - 14 April 2015

A 'record-breaking' 141 people signed up for our first 'Hiring For Culture' meetup! Culturevists that work as part of brands including: 

Accenture, Asos, AXA, BP, Bromford, Burberry, Camelot, Deloitte, FCO, Financial Times, Fujitsu, GoCardless, Grant Thornton, Graze, Guardian News & Media, Hailo, Hearst Magazines, HSBC, IBM, JUST EAT, JustGiving, Kent County Council, Linklaters, Lyst, Macmillan Cancer Support, McKinsey & Company, Nuffield Health, Paperchase Products, Royal College of Art, SapientNitro, Save the children, Sky, State street, Tesco Labs, Thames Water TransferWise, Transport for London, Tullow Oil, Zealify, and many more!!!

We learnt about Hired's focus on candidate experience. Ubers to interviews, dedicated Talent Advocates who are assessed only on candidate experience and not on hiring, boxes with bottles of Dom, and £1,200 bonus from Hired when they get hired through the platform. Thanks to Hired for providing the delicious pizza!

Matt Buckland shared some more structured thoughts on Hiring for Culture in his post here

David Orford stepped up and shared "The Culture Project" they've sparked at HSBC. I've been so impressed with the early steps, and am so proud and inspired to hear Culturevist was the inspiration for its creation. Stay tuned to hear more.