Organisational Culture: The Secret Ingredient For Michelin Star Businesses

14 min read by Oli Hearsum 18 Sep 2019

|StrategiQ Win Best Employer|Japan_Rugby_vs_South_Africa_2015_Guinness_Reactive_Marketing|StrategiQ_Marketing_Wins_Best_Employer|Eoin-Morgan-Alex-Hales_Omission-Culture|Marko-Arnautovic-West-Ham-Departure-Team-Values||Saracens_Exeter_Chiefs_Culture|Organisational_Culture_The_Telegraph|StrategiQ Wins Best Employer

At StrategiQ, we’re often reminded that everything we do needs to be of Michelin star standard. Whether it’s content updates, client communication or a new website design, we pride ourselves on a set of standards that are firmly ingrained in our organisational culture and DNA.

“We’re very lucky to have such a great culture here” is an instinctive response when asked what it’s like to work at StrategiQ.

Organisational culture has always interested me, from studying it in my Human Resource Management module at university and being part of a number of different cultures – sports teams, friendship groups and work environments.

Understanding what makes high-performing teams ‘tick’, and recreating that in your own team, is no mean feat and is definitely a long game. Typically, it boils down to a strong culture and a true sense of togetherness.

But what is organisational culture?

For me, culture can be defined as a common set of values that a group of individuals all share, and which informs how people interact, engage and behave in any given situation.

If you’ve ever been contacted by a recruiter, you’re likely to have been exposed to the opening gambit of ‘a great culture, with great perks’. It’s easy to talk about a good culture, but bringing it to life and receiving buy-in to that overarching vision is another story altogether.

How culture impacts business performance

Take any sector – whether it’s legal, finance, transportation or education – and there’s unlikely to be wildly different salary levels and skill sets at similar-sized organisations. Instead of ability, price point, or the quality of the product or service, it’s typically the culture that can provide what all businesses are striving for – a sustainable competitive advantage.

Former head of British Cycling, David Brailsford, refers to small incremental factors that add up to a larger advantage as ‘marginal gains’, with culture and the team ethos a perfect example of this.

Culture within Sports Teams

Team culture is dominating sports headlines at the moment, with clubs putting the needs of the ‘team’ ahead of individual talent.


Source: England Cricket Culture and West Ham

Successful Sports Teams – Built on Culture

When reviewing any team or company that has enjoyed prolonged success over a number of years, they’re highly likely to have a strong culture. Short-term success can be achieved with a toxic environment but sustaining and growing that success requires that buy-in.

As highlighted in the below headline, Saracens and Exeter have created a duopoly in Rugby Union, with former England great Jeremy Gusgott attributing this to the clubs’ respective cultures. While I would contest the point regarding Saracens, who have a star-studded team including seven of England’s 15 likely starters at the World Cup, Exeter Chiefs, by comparison, have just two and considerably inferior finances. To challenge ‘Sarries’ in the way they do every year and put in performances well above ‘the sum of their parts’ requires a strong culture. 



Source: The Rugby Paper

Similarly, Eddie Jones, who I regard as the finest coach in world sport, built the success of rugby minnows Japan on three key values: respect, courage and discipline. These values underpinned what the team stood for and informed the subsequent decisions that they made. Famously, in the 2015 World Cup group stage, they had the option with a matter of seconds left on the clock to kick for goal and take a historic draw against a heavily-fancied South Africa team. Instead, they made a brave decision to pass up the points and go for the win. As any rugby fan will know, this resulted in them defying the odds and recording the best result in their nation’s rugby history. It also sparked one of the finest pieces of reactive marketing from Guinness (shown below). Hopefully Eddie Jones can inspire England in the same way this winter.


The Barcelona Way

A close friend recently introduced me to ‘The Barcelona Way’, an episode of the Way of Champions podcast, featuring organisational psychologist Damien Hughes. This explored the role that relative managerial rookie Pep Guardiola played in building the platform for the Catalonian gants’ continued success – leading to him becoming one of the most revered coaches in world sport.

Listen to it on The Anfield Wrap.

Some could be sceptical about Guardiola’s role in creating one of the best teams of this generation, not least because he had Argentinian maestro Lionel Messi in his ranks. However, once you explore the DNA of successful sports teams, it’s clear that there’s much more to it than talent or ability alone. 

Problems started to appear for Barcelona in 2006 after they won the Champions League. Complacency started to creep in, with some describing it as a “slow motion car crash unfolding in front of their very eyes”. The following season, they were 18 points off the top of the table, a place they were used to occupying, and fell further behind the following season. The club then appointed Guardiola as manager – and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Types of Culture

Damien Hughes mentions four types of organisational culture in the podcast, which date back to organisational theorists Charles Handy and Warren Buffett.

Star model

Hire the best talent, pay the most money for them and hope they ‘gel’. This classic example of this is the Real Madrid ‘galactico’ team with stars including Beckham, Figo, Ronaldo and Zidane, to name just a few. On paper they had the best team imaginable, but didn’t enjoy the success that their wage bill demanded.


A more traditional view of management and leadership, promoting a top-down leadership approach. This is typically associated with the Sir Alex Ferguson era at Manchester United, which brought unprecedented success. However, as has been seen following the end of his glittering tenure at the club, this type of culture typically becomes too associated with the main autocrat, with succession planning proving particularly troublesome. Just ask Messrs Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho. 


This type of culture is centred around recruiting the best technicians, those with the highest level of technical ability. The example Hughes uses is Borussia Dortmund and the approach to recruitment employed by the much-admired Jurgen Klopp. He has since instilled the same approach at Liverpool by recruiting the flair players of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, as well as bringing through exciting young academy talent, Trent Alexander-Arnold. 


While there will be successes and spectacular failures with each of the cultures listed above – with the ‘star’ model working particularly successfully for Saracens, for example – the most successful organisations are built on the final culture type: a commitment culture. However, this is by far the most difficult type of culture to create.

How do you create a commitment culture?

As Damien Hughes states, achieving a commitment culture is the equivalent of winning the lottery (in an organisational sense). It requires selling the vision of the company and getting people to buy into it.

It’s all achieved by setting standards and holding individuals accountable to the values of the company. 

For Barcelona, their quest for a commitment culture impacted their recruitment strategy, as well as triggering the high-profile departures of Samuel Eto’o, Deco and former World Player of the Year and England nemesis, Ronaldinho. It also affected the club’s onboarding of new players, with supercars being banned from the training ground (something the egotistical Zlatan Ibrahimovic took umbrage with, and which eventually led to his departure).

According to Hughes, Guardiola and his coaching team very much lived by the mantra “your talent will decide if you get to the dressing room door, your behaviour will decide whether you stay in it”. As a leadership team, they introduced three values:

  1. Humility – don’t show off wealth (as was clear by his stance on supercars)
  2. Hard work – you don’t coast on talent; you continue to work hard
  3. Team over self-interest 


In the same way that the three aforementioned star players were let go, three players by the names of Sergio Busguets, Pedro and Gerard Pique were promoted into the first team ranks (the latter via a short stint at Manchester United), with all three possessing the above values in abundance to match their undoubted talent and potential.

The whole squad would live those values on a day-to-day basis. This was evident when club captain Carlos Puyol furiously broke up a celebratory samba dance led by Brazilian defender Dani Alves after his teammate, Thiago Alcantara, had put them 7-0 ahead against Rayo Vallecano. Puyol also opened his post-match press conference with an apology for that particular incident, rather than waxing lyrical about his team’s performance, as it was seen as goading the opposition and not in keeping with their value of ‘humility’. However, it wasn’t just the captain who was responsible for ensuring players and coaching staff adhered to the team’s values. Under Guardiola, Barcelona implemented a ‘leader-leader’ model, as opposed to the more traditional ‘leader-follower’ approach, with everyone taking ownership of their individual roles.

The impact of this cultural change was nothing short of astonishing, with the club going on to win nine of the next 11 possible domestic titles, and three Champions League titles in the same period.

Culture at StrategiQ

While I’ve only been with StrategiQ a matter of months, the quotes from the video above paint a good picture:

“I’ve never been anywhere where everyone’s on the same page.”

“You’re given all the support you could ever wish for.”

During a team social, one popular member of the team remarked: “I’d be there for any of you” and “what a great family we are”.

As was the case with the Barcelona team, we’ve also implemented a true ‘leader-leader’ model. This is something that the whole team familiarised themselves with by reading the book Turn The Ship Around: A True Story Of Turning Followers Into Leaders, authored by former US Navy captain, David Marquet. 

This culture has culminated in a true sense of togetherness and being named Suffolk’s Best Employer, which was celebrated at a team BBQ and (very competitive) rounders match


Business Consultancy Service

As our Director Sarah remarks in the video, “we do marketing but you know that”. However, one service that you may not be aware of is our business consultancy offering.

This service, run by our CEO Andy, is designed to help you structure your business and put a plan in place for your team. Andy gets “under the skin” of an organisation, identifies your ‘why’, and helps to align all of the key stakeholders and their respective teams. This alignment sets the foundations for a commitment culture to be fostered and maintained.

Andy has recently completed three days of consultancy with the leadership team of one of our clients, who typically operate hundreds of miles away from each other. Each session focused on a different topic, with other members of the StrategiQ team in attendance throughout. 

This brand, which previously operated solely on British shores, has recently expanded into Europe and is now aiming to triple its turnover in one year. 

Our consultancy helped the leadership team understand how they’re going to get there, and the involvement of the StrategiQ team will mean that we’re better-equipped to meet and exceed this turnover goal.

Over the three days we:

  • Agreed the client’s visionary and business goals
  • Established the why, how and what of its business
  • Trained the team on Insights Discovery and leadership
  • Trained them on the resources they need to ‘live’ the company vision and to ensure everyone’s pulling in the same direction.

Off the back of these consultancy days, we have been able to completely refresh the client’s brand and website in line with the new direction of the company. In addition, the whole team left enthused and excited about the direction of the company and fully bought into the goals and vision of the organisation.

But it all starts from understanding business needs. Helping to structure an organisation and putting a business plan in place is only possible by understanding its ‘why’ and what it wants to achieve. This client’s business plan can now be our go-to resource when mapping out the marketing delivery over the next 12 months to get it to where it needs to be.

In summary, culture is a fascinating topic, albeit one that is often overlooked. However, it’s something that can make or break businesses. A successful culture can’t be achieved by throwing in more and more ‘perks’; people have to fully buy into it and live and breathe it on a daily basis. It informs decision-making, the interaction within teams and has implications on the bottom line. Not only will a great culture create a nice atmosphere to work in; your retention rate will feel the impact too. 

How Can StrategiQ help?

Would you like to begin reaping the benefits of a commitment culture? By opening the doors to an external team of experts, we can offer a new perspective and set up your business for prolonged success. Can you confidently say that you know your ‘why’?

If you’ve been through a similar process recently and need help in meeting your aspirational goals, how about using a fully-aligned team who will help you to get your best return from your marketing investment?

Alternatively, if you’re looking for new opportunities and want to join an award-winning culture, then get in touch. With our own growth showing no signs of abating, we too are working towards our own lofty, but exciting, goals.

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