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How newsletters help building a great company culture

In my last couple of blog posts I mentioned newsletters as a great way to share what happens in your company. Of course, they’re just a tool. So there are right ways to use them, and, well, less right ways.

A couple of years ago the CEO of very big company gave a speech. He talked about what actions he did to change the company’s culture. I have to admit, he did quite a bit. One of the actions was a weekly newsletter. He actually spent two hours each Sunday to write it, sharing what was happening in the company. Unfortunately, our hotshot was fuller of himself than the newsletter of vowels. So he also took the time to ventilate what his opinion on every subject was in the newsletter. And that’s a shame. It should be about ‘sharing’, not about ‘sending’ and telling people what to do.

The NEWS-rule

A regular newsletter is a tool for transparency. It’s an easy way to let everybody know what’s going on. It’s also the perfect solution to help building company culture. You can celebrate successes, give credit to those who deserve it, make fun of management and so on. Logically, it’s used by many companies including Futurice, SC5 and Vincit. When you are thinking about creating one for your company and you’re wondering how to do it, just remember the NEWS-rule. The what? It’s quite simple:

Not too long, not too short (Stories are worth telling, just don’t overdo it)

Exact (True story’s from real people)

Wonky (It should be a fun read)

Showing (Ad lots of pictures)

It can help to make up some recurring sections (News, Fun Story of the Month, Did He Really Say That? Birthdays and so on) that give structure. Also, no heroic efforts from management are needed, on the contrary. Delegate making the content to employees: pictures, stories, tips, announcements, celebrations and so on. If your company has 50+ employees, there won’t be a problem finding interesting stuff each week. Of course, make sure they have the time to work on it. Although it’s great fun to make a newsletter, it’s still work and not a hobby.

Getting to know each other

Maybe you’re like: ‘We already share a lot of stuff on Slack and monthly company-wide meetings. Why should we bother with newsletters?’ Well, great for you. But newsletters bring something else: they give another perspective on what’s going on in your company. They are the perfect tool to share stories, so employees and colleagues turn into real people instead of colleagues with certain skills. And that’s the most important step in building a great company culture.

How to grow a thriving development culture

A lot of companies I visited have a thriving development culture where things like sharing knowledge and organizing meetups are the rule, not the exception. When I ask about it, I always get the same answer: “We only hire people who believe experimenting en cooperation are important.” In other words: They didn’t create a culture, it was a logical consequence.

Though the answer seems obvious I wasn’t ready to accept it. It is no help for organisations which don’t have this kind of culture yet. What should they do? Fire every developer and hire new ones? So…


Give employees autonomy, start with coaching

Trusting your people and giving them autonomy is all good and well, but as Jurgen Appelo keeps telling us, delegation is a complex process. One of the things you need to do is to provide employees with the tools to resolve their issues themselves. In other words: they need knowledge and skills. In all the companies I visited, there were great coaching and mentorship programs to do precisely that.

Teach them how to organize

At Futurice they’re taking coaching and growing to the next level. Actually, their team of coaches is called the CTO Task Force. The team is responsible for continuous support. Think of competence development, facilitating meetings, personal coaching & mentoring and so on. Also, every employee has access to a mentor to help with his or her personal growth. Those mentors play several roles. The traditional one as mentor, coach, teacher and sparring partner. But sometimes they’re the ones you need for a hug or as a listener.

Those mentors have an important job. And they aren’t just more experienced colleagues, they take regular trainings themselves. It’s important to realize being a mentor is not a full-time job at Futurice. So they still work on client projects, write code etcetera. It’s the best of both world: they’re people who know (and do!) the everyday work and who know what it takes to help others.

External coaches or different roles

Similar ideas you can find at Vincit. Although they’re concentrating less on mentorship, there is a team of coaches helping people to self-organize. The unique thing in their situation:  They work with several external coaches; everyone can schedule one-on-one meetings if they think it would help. Yep, you read that right. Vincit spends a lot of money on professional trained external coaches to help their own people deal with personal issues and development.

A while ago I  talked about this with Lasse Koskela from Reaktor. Surprise surprise: They have a great program as well. What was interesting about their approach: The roles of people at Reaktor can easily change. When I talked to Lasse he was an Android developer working in a team. Several months before that he had a different role, as he was busy coaching teams.

Select your own leaders

People work in more stable teams at Ministry. A company that a while ago took a radical decision. They removed managers completely. Decisions are made together, as a team. Well, some teams really struggled for a while. But they made it work eventually by sending delegates to the company leaders. Explaining they might nog need managers anymore, but they surely needed Team Leaders to keep the whole picture and help with administrative tasks. The solution: Employees select their own leaders. Of course, being selected as a leader doesn’t mean you know how that works. So company leaders began developing a leadership program. One of the things they do is organizing regular talks with all the team-leaders outside of the office. Just one-on-one’s so people can share experiences and exchange tips.

Trust works both ways

These are just a couple examples of the endless possibilities. For me there’s a great lesson to learn. The funny thing is, it creates trust that works both ways. The company will get better results quicker. The worker feels he’s trusted enough to invest in.

See you next week,


21 Apr

Don’t give up on feedback, but know when to stop

When you decide to collect company-wide feedback, there’s an important thing to remember: You could fail. And that’s not a problem. After all, it’s just another experiment you can learn from. In this case: You either receive good feedback, or you’ll find out what doesn’t work.

What is success?

Of course, in order to know if what you do works, you need to define what failure or success means. So make sure you define your goals and add a clear timetable. When do you need to see results? When is it time to adjust what you do? Don’t act too quickly, but we’ll talk about that later. The other thing you need to think about is the most important metric in collecting feedback, the participation ratio. That’s the amount of employees that provide you with feedback compared to all the employees. You’ll want to hear as many people as possible, not just a small group. And your employees will only dedicate their time if they believe that it’s not only empty words. So getting back on feedback is a must. Read more about that right here.


Completing the Feedback Cycle

When you talk about feedback, the last part of the word is very important: you have to get back on it. Collecting feedback correctly is only the first step. Handling it correctly is the second. Because no matter how genius the way in which you collect your feedback, if it isn’t followed by actions, it’s nothing more than a bad retrospective.

Don’t waste their time

For many people getting back on feedback is difficult and time consuming, especially on company level. It’s probably why it often gets neglected. There are surveys and big plans. And then… Nothing. It’s bad because it communicates you don’t appreciate your people. And if this happens more than once people stop trusting surveys. Or worse: everything from HR. That’s also something I experienced myself. I spend time filling in two pages of questions, I thought about it, worked on it and then… Nothing. I felt they wasted my time!