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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Payne

Culture? "It's the way we roll..."

Was actually a track by MC Hammer no less, released in 1992. Now admittedly it was nowhere as good as "U can't touch this" which made him a household name at the time, but it served a purpose way beyond what Stanley Burrell imagined at the time. It became synonymous with describing how people viewed themselves as a group, how they defined what they were about, the way they behaved, and they wanted to let everyone know. "That's us, that's who we are, that's what we do." Anyone that has the conviction to make such a statement is clearly very proud and passionate to be part of that group. Call them what you will, a gang, a tribe, a club, a group of fans in the football terraces, you will struggle to find a more powerful sense of togetherness, pride, loyalty, or collective responsibility. Perhaps call them a team.

Every business should have their team of people feeling the same way. It’s the company culture, identity, soul, or DNA. It’s a stick of rock bought at the seaside with the name written through the middle. However, there are a host of reasons why some business owners or leaders don't tackle what is probably the most critical business planning area to address, and maybe that pressure is also part of the problem. There is quite often a lack of clarity or understanding as to what a "creating" a company culture involves, some perhaps don't address it all and let the business find its own identity as it evolves, some think it's the playground of big business. Others see it as an item on a checklist. Marketing Budget, tick. Company Culture, tick.

The culture of any organisation runs through it from top to bottom, it is the lifeblood of the business, the oxygen travelling through the arteries that allows the business to breathe and fulfil its' potential. Without out it, great strategies, people, systems, processes, hard work and good intention will only go so far. Without it, the business is like Frankenstein's monster, a vague semblance of the vision of its creator, of what it had the potential to be, but clearly the sum of its parts does not make the whole; something is missing. As hard as you try to stitch these parts together, without that electricity living within, there is nothing that will fill the void.

It runs top from to bottom, and it must start from top to bottom. Essentially it is about leadership to get the ball rolling (and keep it rolling thereafter). What is the vision of the principal of the business, their mission, the raison d'etre? It is no more complicated in design than when you started a club with your mates when you were 10 years old. Why have you set up the club, what excites you about it, what do you want it to achieve, how will you get there, how do you want people to feel about it? You then start inviting certain mates to join, but not all, most don't get an invite in fact.

That's the first important next step. The answer to these questions should drive your recruitment strategy and process, drive the way you interview people. So, create a character profile of the type of people you want to employ, create some must answer questions. You need to really understand what drives these people before you employ them, get under the veneer they prepared for the interview, establish the cut of their jib, what's important to them. I never asked any sales or lettings questions, I left that to my ops Directors, I only wanted to know about them, so much so, that most left saying they had never had an interview like it, but they really enjoyed it. Always trust your gut feel, your instincts when making that yes or no decision, it will be nearly always right. When asked yes or no 10 minutes after the interview, that should be your decision. Anytime I have thought too long, changed my mind and convinced myself they could work out, I have regretted it.

As MD I interviewed every single person that may have joined the business, protecting the culture of the business was that important, but that alone created a cultural expectation for the teams, made it clear to them that they were part of a great club and I was being extremely prudent about who we let join it. You know when you get that right, you can smell it in the air. When interviewees turned up, I could sense the undertone in the office as my existing team were working them out, not because they were threatened or jealous, but as I found out afterwards at the beginning, they were being as protective as I was about the business. When people were late for no good reason, when people behaved in way that was inappropriate, the same sense of disapproval was tangible. My teams cared passionately as much about the business as I did, but how did we get there?

It's a long road, but the way I looked at it was, it is no different to raising children, it's something you just do every day without thinking. So, let me explain. The values, standards and ethics that I wanted my children to latch onto as they grew up, I believed in, they were ones I lived by and were important to me. Don't get me wrong they are their own people now they are teenagers, but when you have a chance to influence those things, you do so, you set standards and red lines. (That's the way we roll in the Payne family). For example, saying please and thank you, or making sure their shoes are clean for school. As they get older the list evolves.

As a principal of the business, you should know these things without blinking. What do you want your business to standard for, how do you treat your customers, what are your standards, your red lines, your beliefs, your ethics? Do your customers know and feel this? These will in time evolve and be supported and reinforced by your teams, systems, processes, compliance, marketing etc and will keep evolving as the business grows, no different to your parenting style at home. It helped me visualise the challenge ahead by seeing the business as another one of my children whose growing identity and personality I had to nurture and protect.

So, to start with create a culture document, I called mine the Brand Bible, the Brand being so much more than logos and colours, for me it was that lifeblood within. Communicate it constantly and demonstrate where it is applicable and use daily examples to reinforce it. As one example, I used compliance as a culture building mechanism. At the beginning I wanted the business to be fair, transparent, credible and trustworthy in an industry where at the time that was in short supply and customers were wary about agents generally. I sat with teams’ time and again explaining my plan and lobbying their support. Consensus was key, having a shared goal to aim for is essential. You won’t build a healthy culture by dictating, and you won’t achieve any goals you demand they hit.

I then spent years with my management team getting all the teams NAEA and ARLA qualified, giving them confidence to do their jobs properly, reinforcing every week that they were experts at what they did, that our customers had the right to trust what we did, that we were better than other agents, but had to deliver a top drawer professional experience for us to maintain that. I got the teams to sleep, eat and breathe compliance and professionalism, to keep the offices tidy, to dress smartly, to take pride in what we were doing. We had league tables and awards, we talked about it, we celebrated it, we had KPI, then we started getting testimonials, we then had more league tables for those, and then they started to believe.

Once that happened, it started managing itself. As a result, combined with work on processes, systems, marketing, etc, we increased our average house price in sales and lettings by over 50% as customers in those price ranges started to be attracted to the business and the teams had the confidence to bring them on board. Our average fees increased by nearly 30%, and as a result of the better-quality instructions, we started building longer chains, attracting more local people, selling more of what we took on.

So, culture is not just a feel-good factor, that ticks a box and keeps the HR Director off your back. Yes, you have to make it fun, always focus on the positives, catching people doing things right, not the other way around. Yes, you have to humanise the business, really get to know your teams, their families, be flexible, be empathetic when they need support, make them feel like they work in a special place they won’t find anywhere else. Of course, you as a principal have to believe yourself, it has to be genuine, but if you do and it is then you will keep this happy talented well trained band of brothers and sisters together for a long time to come and the business will thrive.

It's only about the way you roll.


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