☂️ If Mary Poppins was your Chief Culture Officer
7 Recommendations for Finding the Fun and Meaning at Work
If Mary Poppins hadn’t been an extraordinary nanny, she would have been an excellent Chief Culture Officer. She expresses empathy, demonstrates creativity and embodies a magical power that makes people smile, dance and sing! In the movie’s famous “Spoonful of Sugar” song, the lyrics epitomize the type of work environment that cultivates happiness:
“In every job that must be done. There is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job's a game. And every task you undertake. Becomes a piece of cake…”
By finding joy in work, Mary Poppins shows us that a project doesn’t have to feel like a chore. It can be both enjoyable and sweet. With a dash of community and connection, the mundane becomes mesmerizing — messes can be fixed with the snap of a finger and an aura of kindness. Suddenly, Mary Poppins changed the culture of tidying up at home. Imagine what she could have done for the workplace.
If you could create a culture from scratch with spoonfuls of sugar — how would it look, feel, sound or taste?
Look: A diverse, equitable and inclusive community that embraces and celebrates each other’s heritage and traditions.
Feel: An aura of empathy, radical candor or Mental Health Mondays.
Sound: Laughter on a video call or classical music in the conference rooms.
Taste: Cultural snacks at the office or snack boxes sent to remote workers.
When you bring thoughtful moments like these together, the end result is culture —
“The shared values, goals, attitudes, and practices that characterize a workplace. It is reflected in how people behave, interact with each other, make decisions, and do their work. It impacts everything — including your happiness and career.”
Internal communications play a critical role in cultivating culture by developing strategies to bring those meaningful moments to life with storytelling, collaborating with teams to elevate important topics and more. Now more than ever, culture is a differentiator that can determine if employees stay or go.
“The biggest challenge facing companies today is how to maintain a world-class culture amidst so much change and uncertainty. Culture underpins every measure of organizational success. If culture and strategy aren’t aligned, top initiatives—from improving retention to delivering record revenue—fail.”
In this 2021 study from MIT Technology Review, the authors determined that “Toxic Culture is driving the Great Resignation.”
I asked 10 Internal Communications leaders — what guidance do you have to build a culture from scratch? Here’s what we recommend as the recipe:
⭐ #1 Begin with Mission and Values
Your culture should be linked to what drives your organization — what impact do you strive to make and what is the way you want to make it?
“Start by defining the culture you want to create. What are the values and behaviors you want to normalize? For example, do you want a culture where it's okay to question the status quo or one that is more top-down? Codify your cultural values in a list of maxims and make them available broadly. The most important thing is to ensure that your processes, policies and structures reinforce the values and norms you're trying to cultivate.” -Patrick Holmes
“Our core values mean nothing without an ongoing commitment and constant vigilance to uphold them. They must guide all of our actions and inform all of our work, including all elements of the employee experience…how we could build and reinforce culture based off of our existing values, and how could we use them to move from discussion toward action?”
To use Service as an example:
Q: How does an organization that embodies service behave?
A: It prioritizes giving back and helping others.
Q: What could that look like in practice?
A: It could look like: A robust and well-supported employee volunteerism program or time off to volunteer. An annual Day of Service. A charitable/service project component at every employee gathering, including our holiday party, summer picnic, New Employee Orientation and even RTO events.”
🎻 #2 Support from Leaders
With vision from founders and leaders, a culture begins to take shape. This often differentiates an organization in its early days but continues to be core as growth happens.
“Start by getting close with your founder(s) and leadership — understand why they built this company, how they operate, and what makes them tick. So much of a culture is its leaders and the norms they set. Then take a close look at what you've found and decide what serves the org well that you should be dialing up, and what perhaps isn't as useful, that it's OK to dial down.” –Camilla Boyer
With encouragement from founders and leaders, team members feel the freedom to participate in shaping culture. Employees need to see leadership embracing the culture both internally and externally — are they showing up at major DEI events hosted by your employee groups and are they posting about making time for family on platforms like LinkedIn?
As an example, I admire Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, for the content he shares to highlight the importance of making time for embracing diversity — engaging in conversation with Spellman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell and balancing work and family while visiting his daughter at college.
Drawing on values, leaders set the tone for culture:
“Culture, like our personal relationships, require constant tending, consideration, and attention. In my experience, the culture we want gets stronger when leaders "walk the talk;" use organizational values as the lens by which we treat one another, how we make decisions, keeping everyone focused and aligned on the organization's strategic priorities; and giving meaningful recognition at all levels - top-down, bottom-up, and peer-to-peer. –Cheryl Magat
💥 #3 Empower Employees
Culture must be a two-way street. It is the employees who help make culture happen through the way they treat each other, the events they organize to foster community and the conversations that happen in between work.
“First, culture is both top-down and bottom-up. To build a culture from scratch, involve leaders as well as colleagues from every level and function across the organization. By inviting a broad group into the culture creation process, you can de-risk your work because individuals who have shaped the culture will be far more likely to embrace and champion it.” –Toby Frankenstein
Consider formal ways for employees to contribute with leadership opportunities for clubs or groups, financial support for activities and the gift of time to gather around shared interests or ideas. If your team members aren’t given the flexibility and encouragement to contribute, there won’t be a culture.
“Leadership can set a vision for the culture they want, but culture is not built until their vision is communicated in a way that resonates with each level of the organization. Keep the broad themes simple and relatable, culture sticks when people can understand and own their part in making it come to life. For example, a simple ‘I've got your back’ is more relatable than a blanket statement of ‘trust’.” -Surbhi Ugra
Employees at all levels should be involved in culture. If your organization is fortunate to have an employee experience team, they should not be the only ones building culture. Administrative Assistants and Office Managers are critical partners, but they can not be the sole active team members on the culture committee. Find those ambassadors across different departments to tap into their interests and networks.
🦄 #4 Embrace the Unique
Consider what makes your organization special, from products to people to customers — incorporate those moments into your culture. Lean into them to establish rituals. In this book report on Humor, Seriously, I highlighted the hilarious custom of gifting chicken-themed socks. What are those moments for your organization?
Strive to be purposeful and true to what matters most when mapping out your culture:
“Be intentional. Culture is a loaded word. If we define it as behavioral norms, they can devolve if not much conscious thought or planning goes behind them. Take time to reflect on, discuss and codify the culture you want to aspire to, and chart out, recognize and reward the behaviors that support it.” –Diane Tate
“Be authentic. Similar to your personal brand, your culture is what people say about your company when you are not in the room. It is how they experience your people, your work, and how your teams deliver impact. Understand this experience and amplify all that is good. Highlight and be proud of the culture that your team, customers, and clients love about you. –Tracey Pavlishin
📝 #5 Create your Culture Plan
Just as your set goals for work objectives, you must also create a plan for culture — develop a yearly plan that’s part of a long-term vision. Translate the key results you hope to achieve onto an editorial calendar to map out the meaningful moments and measure their impact.
Here’s a guide for getting the planning process started from Culture Amp which powers employee pulse surveys and many other tools. Hannah O’Brien, Culture Amp’s Head of Internal Communications recommends asking these questions on your checklist.
“I have heard Culture referred to as 'The way things are done around here'. So having a really clear vision of what that looks like is the most important thing you can do. I would recommend thinking about:
What your company values are — these are your building blocks. Are they unique to you or could they belong to any organisation?
The type of person that thrives in your organization — this will help you hire people aligned with your cultural values
The way you make decisions — are you hierarchical in your decision making or do people have the autonomy to make decisions at any level?
The non-negotiables — whether that's your approach to wellbeing, flexibility, social impact, DEI, high performance or all of those things. What are the ways of working you are not willing to compromise on or have a certain expectation around?
And lastly, but probably most importantly — ask your people what they think makes your organization unique.
Once you have that understanding of the elements above, you should stay laser focused on building out, and protecting the 'way things are done around here' (where it makes sense).”
🛣️ #6 Embed Culture in the Employee Journey
From the moment a candidate applies, the culture experience with your organization begins! Once on board, the first day offers a powerful experience. This is an area where internal communications helps align different teams, from recruiting to alumni relations.
“Make culture behavioral. Too often culture is defined with broad, generic terms, like "trust" or "teamwork." That's fine as a headline, but make sure that you're clear with colleagues about what the culture looks like behaviorally. If an alien from another planet landed inside a company office, what would they see/hear that would make them understand that your business is living your culture?
Culture doesn't live in slides or presentations — it lives in colleagues' everyday work and experience. Embedding a new culture requires a systemic view of your business, meaning you should ask yourself what are you doing on a daily/weekly/quarterly basis to reinforce and celebrate cultural norms? For culture to really stick, consider how you can embed it throughout the entire journey of an employee's experience.” –Toby Frankenstein
Consider culture doesn’t end when someone departs, or as Rebecca Zucker recommends in HBR, “Leave the Door Open for Employees to Return to Your Organization.”
📈 #7 Evaluate Impact and Apply Lessons
After your culture has been cultivated, send surveys, collect data with focus group conversations and measure impact. Depending on the results, you’ll need to pivot as needed. Culture is always evolving as your organization does.
“If you are looking to build a culture from scratch, you need to determine the current state of play. How would you describe the current culture? Then state your aspirations and build incrementally.
There is rarely just one culture inside an organisation, sub-cultures will exist and be created because of varying leadership styles, location or sense of connection with the company.
Building a successful culture takes hard work and needs to feel owned by employees. Simply stating you have a certain culture is not enough, you need to look for the evidence and know how to celebrate and reinforce it. –Rachel Miller
I hope that your culture can help you find joy in work just as Mary Poppins shows us is possible. If it’s not there immediately, add the spoonfuls of sugar to make it extra sweet!
Thank you to the leaders who contributed quotes to this article. I’m grateful to learn from their best practices and share my perspective.