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I love New Year, New Beginnings, Fresh Starts. I love Kick-offs, at least the concept of them. Bringing people together to celebrate the year gone by and envision, plan and energize for the year ahead. Regretfully, many kick-offs are not about these things at all. Some kick-offs should be called “kick-butts” instead, with managers complaining about last years performance and using their best management-by-fear-tactics to scare people into performing better the next year. As if that worked.

Thankfully there are exceptions from that rule and I was fortunate enough to work with one of those companies a few weeks ago. A fast growing Norwegian start-up brought the entire global team together for a 3-days kick-off in Berlin, Germany. The first day was about strategizing for the year ahead, the second day was about their company culture, the third day was Berlin-sightseeing – and every night was all about socializing and celebrating the hard work and great achievements in the year gone by.

I kicked of the company culture day by talking about what culture is (the way we do things) and what it is not (fussboll tables, free beer and cookies in a jar… even though those things are nice too).

Many people still think of culture as something vague and fuzzy while in fact it is anything but. Culture is hard-core business strategy, when done right. A company’s culture determines the effectiveness of its teams, the quality of its products, the level of its customer service, the loyalty, engagement and dedication of its employees, and ultimately; the team performance and the company’s bottom line results. Having held roles as Chief Cultural Officer, Culture Evangelist and Culture Strategist for the last 15 years (you can tell I’m really into culture, can’t you?) I know this to be true. And I have learned that one of the most effective ways of creating the “right kind” of culture, one that supports the overall objectives and greater purpose of the team, is to create a “culture code”; some simple principles that guide employee and leadership behaviors, choices and priorities every day.

A culture code is not rules decided by the leadership team on how they think people should behave. A culture code is principles created together with the employees; capturing what makes them unique and what works great, while agreeing on some aspirational principles that will make them even greater and evolve further as a company. “Give each other honest feedback” “challenge status quo” and “fail fast and often – and learn from it” are examples of aspirational culture codes from some of our corporate clients.

Now back to the Norwegian start-up: prior to the culture day, the leadership team had collected input from the entire organization, and based on these we could make a first draft of a company culture code to be discussed and agreed on amongst everyone in the company.

One of the culture codes the team agreed on was “hard things create value”; reminding them to not give up just because something is difficult. If things are easy everyone can do it, and the team has no intention of being everyone. Another culture code they decided on was “progress over perfection”; not to spend too much time on making things 100% perfect, agreeing that approximately right is better than accurately wrong. The culture code “professional, easy and fun to work with” reminds the team to focus on what really matters; happy employees, happy customers; knowing that the first one leads to the second.

When everyone are involved in the process of creating the team’s culture code, the ownership is shared and the motivation to live by it great, simply because it feels meaningful and real, as opposed to many companies’ core values that are too vague for people to even give them a second thought – and much less live by them. I am all for having company values but I only think they are valuable when they are meaningful, understood – and inspire for certain kinds of mindsets and behaviors.

When teams have been involved and agreed on “their way of doing things” it is easier to remind each other and keep each other accountable, should someone drift away from those agreements. However, the strength of a culture code is determined by the leadership team’s own commitment to live and lead by it, coach people on it and constantly look for ways to reinforce it.

Now, lets return to our start-up friends: after a full day of “culture coding” the team was happy and exhausted, and ready for some celebration…

Norwegian drinking songs are quite simple and straightforward, even when you don’t know a single word in Norwegian. As long as you howl, sing along with “singelingeling” and raise your glass at the end, you’re in. When I arrived at the Bierstube in Berlin center, a grand room that can hold thousands of people, the team was easy to spot. I just followed the “singelingeling”, the laughter and the sound of glasses joint together in “Hei Skåååal!” (“cheers” in Norwegian). The company certainly had a lot to celebrate, but I got the feeling that what they celebrated the most, was being together.

Earlier that day I had emphasized that culture wasn’t about beers and party, but I must admit that when I saw this group of happy people, cheering, singing, laughing and dancing I was reminded of the company I used to be Chief Cultural Officer for – and the epic kick-offs and parties we used to have. How much fun it was, the amazing energy it released and the friendships and sense of camaraderie it created. “When you have laughed together in the night, it is much harder to be an ass towards each other in the day” one of the founders used to say. And it was so true.

Call me political incorrect if you will, but the level of camaraderie and energy created over a drink and a Norwegian drinking song in a Biestube in Berlin, would have been a very hard to achieve over coffee and biscuits in a meeting room. Laughter, singing, “svingelingeling, hei skåål” and just being friends having fun together is definitely good for the team spirit, it’s good for the culture, and – as I have seen in every company and every team I have worked with – it’s ultimately really good for business too.

Happy kick-off’ing!

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