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…!