How Dr. Martens is developing its company culture through onboarding


This is a guest post from Holly, Chief Culture Vulture at Dr. Martens. It’s adapted from a Culturevist event Holly hosted.

In January 2019, my team and I hosted a Culturevist event on how the onboarding process impacts company culture. Here’s some of what I shared, together with what we’re doing next. However, before we jump into that, I wanted to tell you our story of how Dr. Martens defined its culture without losing its soul. 

Throughout the twentieth century, Dr. Martens was a family-run business. 

The business was fiercely independent but following threats of bankruptcy in the early 2000s, in 2013 we were acquired by a retail turnaround specialist. 

The private equity company laid down ambitious plans to generate £400 million in four years, more than double the headcount and increase the number of stores globally from 15 to over 100. 

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 16.27.46.png

With so many people joining the business, and other long-term employees moving on, combined with the pressure to meet tough targets, Dr. Martens’ strong brand identity and independent culture were at risk of being diluted. It became a key priority to identify and articulate the business’s global strategy and increase communication from the top down. 

As our business grew, our culture was at risk! 

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 16.28.15.png

We needed to decide what to preserve and what to evolve within our internal culture. In 2015, shortly after I joined, over a 6 month period, we held 6 focus groups involving 78 employees from different areas and all levels of the business with a combined service of 644 years. 

Using these insights, we extracted the essence of the business into the expression “Rebellious Self-Expression”; a simple, powerful and memorable phrase felt to be at the heart of everything Dr. Martens does. 

The next step was to identify our company ambition, our essence, what we believed in, who we are including our fundamentals and the stuff that sets us apart (which other companies may deem at values). 

Then, we need to ensure the whole global business knew this and we lived the brand everyday.

Music is absolutely at the heart of who we are, so, in 2016, we captured everything and literally put it “on the record”, imprinting them on a seven-inch vinyl, complete with artwork, sleeve design and sleeve notes and sent it to each employee. 

We set up a leadership program – “Leading the DM way” which looks at how we want to be as leaders and what the ‘fundamentals’ and ‘stuff that sets us apart’ (our values) mean to us. 

Over a 12 month period we managed to reach over 80 managers in the UK and Europe.

…and we also launched our first edition of our On the Record newspaper – written by and for the people of Dr. Martens not only communicating key commercial milestones but celebrated people for their hard work and individual talents. This paper was first launched in 2016 and is released bi-annually to every single person around the world.

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 16.30.29.png

The final thing we did when we moved into a new head office in Camden (where we are today) we created a home for the company that was a true representation of our brand values, identity and culture.

But, this was not just an internal branding exercise, it has been about continuously influencing behaviour. So, we set up the Culture Vultures – a group of volunteers from across the business who were tasked with being our culture ambassadors. 

When, I started Dr. Martens in October 2015 there was already an “events committee” that they self-nicknamed the “scrooge” group and they organised the summer and xmas party so I immediately got involved. It was clear this group were super passionate about trying to keep everyone happy and were getting frustrated with the lack of structure, budget and support around the business.

It was clear we needed some data to highlight the amazing culture at DMs. It was important to the Global Leadership team (our director) that everyone felt happy, supported and connected during our journey. So we did an engagement survey to identify what we were doing well and what we could do better and we were awarded as a 1 star company according to the Sunday Times, Best Companies to work for and according to their definition this means we are a business who is taking workplace engagement seriously! 

Having this data was useful but we needed the right people to support it. We did a massive recruitment drive and over 40 volunteers came forward and said they wanted to be involved with this group to keep Dr. Martens a great place to work during a time of rapid change. We renamed ourselves the Culture Champions (we later got renamed to the Culture Vultures but that is a story for another day) and used the lowest scoring factors as our focusses for the year: “my company” – keeping everyone connected, “personal growth” empowering learning and “giving something back” highlighting all the charitable activity we already did (apparently).

We thought we were doing a rocking job! We had fresh fruit smoothies every week, we organised a company adrenaline challenges and charity mornings and everyone kept organising parties! But, in 2016 we ran the same survey and.. We lost our star. The areas we focussed on hadn’t improved and it was because we weren’t listening! As we read through the comments we saw: 

  1. People didn’t want fresh fruit smoothies every Monday in the office, it was nice, but it didn’t improve their overall wellbeing. 

  2. People didn’t want to do forced corporate events to get to know who they were working with, they wanted to have the tools to known who everyone was and what was going on in the business 

  3. People wanted the brand to genuinely support charities rather than keep hosting coffee mornings (although they did love cake!)

  4. People loved our parties (so at least we were doing one thing right!)

So, we listened, we stopped and we started with a new approach on the same focuses based on the feedback. 

We were absolutely confident we would be able to improve our engagement score in 2017 and… well, Amanda joined and as Head of Change, Communication and Culture and implemented a new survey platform so.. we have no idea but, it is for the better! 

Our new survey platform, Culture Amp, is much more intuitive (the data highlights what has the biggest impact on our engagement scores rather than just showing us the lowest scores!) and gives us data instantly so we are actually able to act on it (previously it could take up to 3 months to get the data back!!).

We have implemented Lunch and Learns. We have provided our 300 lunches on 10 different topics to support personal growth.

We have launched twist days in retail (which give our store staff the opportunity to shadow office people for the day and encourage them to share their stories on our internal social networking platform) and consequently had 10 internal moves from retail into the Camden head office.

We supported walking meetings and offered massages, football and yoga on some sites to promote physical wellbeing and promoted good mental wellbeing through mindfulness and trained  32 mental health first aiders! 

Oh, and we raised over £20k internally for charity. But that was only the start…

Our next key milestone was when the GLT identified the DM4 - Representing our 4 key priorities:

D TC Acceleration

O perational Excellence

C onsumer Obsession

S ustainable Global Growth

After walking collectively over 144 miles the GLT had identified a clear plan to support our vision which now needed to be shared and owned by the business, so, for the first time in DM history, we asked our top 70 global managers to an event where we communicated exactly what we needed to do together to achieve our ambition!

Last year, the results were in. We were able to compare our new 2017 engagement scores with our pulse survey in 2018. 

In 6 months our global engagement score rose to 68% (+1%). In a fast growing organisation with on average 40 people starting each month in UK and Europe alone, we were really proud of this. 

The CVs spent a lot of time, last year, focusing on “Our Community at DMs” establishing the Volunteering Time Off, Matched Giving policy and choosing the 3 charity partners. In 2018 we raised over £50,000 internally for our Charity partners.  Consequently, 59% of people now felt Dr. Martens allowed them to make a positive difference (+7% over 6 months).

The CVs are also the drivers of key communications to help us understand our business strategy and deliver key messages to everyone easily. They have championed Lifeworks, our internal social networking platform which aims to support, connect, reward and recognise our people and last Year, 64% of people believed there was honest and open two-way communication (+6% in 6 months)

Our story is a truly an incredible journey lead by the people are Dr. Martens and supported by the very top of the business. Over the last 4 years, I have learnt a lot working with the Global Leadership Team as an executive assistant and with the help of Amanda. But, as we grow as an organisation it is very important we continue to nurture our culture.  We have a team of wonderful volunteers who work tirelessly on all things culture and it was recognised, if we really are serious about Culture, which we are, we wanted someone to drive our culture agenda full time.  Therefore, from April 2019 I am so excited to take up the full time role of Chief Culture Vulture and continue to make Dr. Martens a great place to work.

Currently at Dr. Martens we:

Try to bring to life our fundamentals and what sets us apart into every job description globally although this is written by the hiring mgr so can be inconsistent

We send out a brand history timeline and induction pack to every person that is offered a position however, this hasn’t been properly refreshed in a long time 

Due to rapid growth we are unable to set up specific working spaces for people on their first day because most people are now hot desking

And we have an amazing emersive experience in the first month that brings to life everything we have spoken about but.. Only if you work in the Camden office.

How do we continue to do the right things in the right way but tailored to individuals? Whose role and responsibility is it? Onboarding is an essential step in the life cycle of an employee’s “career” and often times, not enough resources go into making it a comprehensive and positive experience. Here at Dr. Martens we are growing at a phenominal rate in 2015 we had 895 people and now we have over 2000. 

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 16.34.35.png