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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