It Takes Focus to Grow and Maintain a Company Culture

by Jeffrey Whitford
Mar 26, 2019 9:30 AM ET

I spend a lot of my time thinking about corporate culture. Since we grew the life science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in 2015, through the acquisition of Sigma-Aldrich, we’ve been navigating that interesting space of culture creation. You’ve got the established culture of the acquiring company and then you’ve got the established culture of the acquiree. How are those two things supposed to automatically mesh or even mesh after several years?

Culture plays a huge role in what we do in Corporate Responsibility (CR). It helps set the tone for the framing of CR in an organization. It also helps creates the  expectation for what CR can do for an organization, be it a risk management strategy or an entrepreneurial strategy that takes CR to a new place, but for that to happen you have to have the right culture. I think culture is created in many ways. It’s the actions that people take, it’s the messages that are put out and it’s the stands that are taken.

I want to share a personal experience of culture that I’ve found fascinating over the past few years and the lessons I’ve learned. I was first introduced to this thing called SoulCycle via Fast Company in 2012. I still remember the graphic in the magazine with the yellow bikes. I didn’t think much of it when I first saw it. It was in New York and that was not close to my midwestness, and I didn’t go there a lot at the time. I remember the story highlighting one of the people you’d find there—Mickey Drexler, then head of J. Crew. Little did I know that article would come back a few years later and be an impetus for a perspective altering experience.

After the acquisition, I was traveling to Boston, Massachusetts more than I imagined I ever would. As I got to know new colleagues, one of my more energetic young colleagues—who is now basically a little sister—asked me if I wanted to go with her to SoulCycle. I had done some indoor cycling before but, with my interest piqued, I agreed—not knowing what I was getting into. The lead-up to that first class in October of 2016 at the Chestnut Hill studio can best be described as a bit trepidatious, including some side comments from folks on the “cult” that I would soon become a part of which I just laughed off. I tried my best not be intimidated when I walked into that dark studio with my special shoes, a bike set-up that was foreign, and music that was so loud I was wondering if this was the moment that I was now classified as a senior citizen. (Yes, I’m an ear plug wearer now.)

Liah, the instructor, was amazing. She was that kind of friendly that isn’t disgusting. If you’re a bit cynical like I am, you know what I’m talking about. It was authentic. She talked me through the set-up—adjusting and readjusting the bike to make sure it was the right fit. She checked in from the podium, literally shouting out just the right level of encouragement. At the end of the class, she congratulated me on a job well done—or for surviving, as I like to say—and invited me back again.

With an impressive level of consistency, this experience is replicated, regardless of which studio around the U.S. that I go to or the instructor that I take—but it goes beyond that. They’ve created an atmosphere that’s consistent. From that custom Jonathan Adler grapefruit candle that’s burning when you walk into the studio that summons a familiar smell, to the application of inspiration on the walls, pulled through to the intersection of trends in design and apparel, their online presence and how they approach platforms like Instagram and now pushing further into a core component of the experience with their new partnership with Apple Music, it is a master class in consistency. They don’t stop there though. In a world that’s increasingly keen to drag down and tear people apart via social media, they promote an environment of inclusivity and positivity towards fitness, body image, gender, race and sexual orientation. They’ve also created an experience that people are willing to pay a ridiculous premium for. But, SoulCycle has made that premium clearly well worth it because the experience is consistently premium.

So, let’s get back to the loyal followers of SoulCycle. I look at it and say that maybe, just maybe, they’ve done something much cleverer. It’s clear that they have, without question, mastered branding—which is always my personal aim and part of my professional responsibility. So, let’s rewind to my colleagues who told me about the “cult”—strangely, this may just be one of the best compliments that a brand can be paid (I say this in context). What they’ve really done is create an incredibly strong culture, so strong that some call it a cult, that drives people to engage at a level that to some is crazy.

The business takeaway here is that creating, maintaining and growing culture is one of the hardest things you can do in an organization. You hear about how companies work hard and invest to increase employee engagement. At MilliporeSigma—the Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany—it’s no different. Our internal customers are always top of mind. How do we create an environment that helps our employees get the most out of their employment experience with us—which gives a myriad of benefits, not only to the employee but to their outputs and the stakeholders that they interact with? One area that my team focuses on is the intersection of our communities and our experience with science. We’re trying to create a culture of volunteerism, of sparking curiosity in young students to help them realize that—regardless of their gender, age, race or orientation—they can be a problem solver like our employees.

The reality is that to do this successfully, you have to be, what I say is maniacally consistent in your application. The opportunities and experiences have to meet your stakeholder’s expectations. You have to be a Liah and check-in—not just in the beginning, but during the middle and the end and then invite everyone back to engage again. You must create the entire experience and the surround sound to go with it. We know when we’re doing it right. Our Curiosity Labs™ and Curiosity Cube® programs create those moments in which we can see our employees hit their groove. It’s hard not to see it when kids get excited about learning—even if it’s covertly disguised.

It’s also not an easy process. In the land of the next great thing and instant gratification-central, it’s easy to lose the consistent application and become a flavor of the month. And let me tell you what happens to the flavor of the month—it melts and does irreparable harm to your credibility for the future. My boss and I recently had a conversation about how we could take our programming to the next level and increase engagement internally. I shared my assessment and the takeaway here was that we focused so much on getting new experiences off the ground that we let up on the consistency pedal. We’ve come back home and are now evening out our programming to make sure that we can be consistent and intentional in our engagement—but it’s a pertinent lesson that even when you know, you can somehow lose sight of.

I have two lessons for myself. First, how do I get into the business of building a culture that creates the impact and experience that SoulCycle is creating (and that I’ve experienced first-hand) on-scale at a global level—allowing me to create advocates and champions of our 21,000 employees? How can we create a culture that stretches beyond our employees and goes even further to engage people to change the course of childhood educational outcomes? The second is a realization.

SoulCycle is the one thing I do that I literally am not able to “multi-task” during. I have to use every ounce of concentration to fully show up the way I want to in that class. There is no processing things from work, no working through a to-do list or whatever else may be occupying my mind. There’s just keeping my legs going and trying to breathe so I’m not carted out of that room on a gurney to visit the emergency room. It’s important to figure out what you can do for your organization when you focus—and the answer is some pretty amazing things. I haven’t been carted out yet!

Jeffrey Whitford is head of corporate responsibility and branding for MilliporeSigma.