HR Heroes podcastPodcast

HR Heroes podcast: #1 Rob May on communicating company culture to stakeholders

01:12 - Introductions

04:00What is company culture?

06:26 - The cauliflower story

12:42 - The difference between perks and culture

15:26 - The Ramsac culture book

21:09 - Company values

25:15 - Closing questions


Jonathan: Hi Rob Thanks for taking the time to come on the show and congratulations for making it onto the SME Culture Leaders list.


Rob: Thanks Jonathan. It’s great to be here.


Jonathan: So we've we've known each other for a long time now and I've always admired the work that you do at Ramsac but for the benefit of the listeners can you introduce yourself and give them an overview of what Ramsac does.


Rob: Ok, I’m Rob May, I'm the managing director at Ramsac, and, as as an organisation, our primary aim is to make it simple. We’re an I.T. outsourcing business at the core but the belief is that, whilst what we do is complicated, users don't want that complexity and I think lots of people in the I.T. industry try and turn it into a black art and believe that they keep their jobs safe by making people realise just how complicated it is what they're doing. My fundamental belief is that if you make somebody feel good about I.T. actually they like having you around and the result of that is we've got clients who stay with us for years. In fact, we've just celebrated this week a clients’ anniversary who has been with us for 25 years. And that's fantastic.


J: Wow, that's amazing yes. I mean that's a real demonstration because in the I.T. world that's so rare. 


The culture at Ramsac


J: I love the idea of make IT simple. I mean that's been a centre of your business for as long as we've known each other and I think, that, if I'm right, that sets the tone for your entire culture within the organisation.


R: It does. I mean right from the get go I say to people that jargon doesn't impress me. My view is if you've got to use jargon then you probably miss the point. Can you explain something as if you're talking to a five year old and if you can't break it down into simple steps, you actually don't understand the subject well enough yourself. And, again, I think people hide behind this. So, right from the get go, we say when people join the firm, don't use jargon, keep it simple, keep it so that people feel good about I.T. and understand I.T. and various parts of our culture and our programmes are built up around that.


What is company culture?

J: So just on the subject of jargon, good you raised it. What does the term company culture mean to you? That's so often covered with jargon which just makes it incomprehensible so what is it? What does it mean to you?


R: I think that's a really interesting conversation and I think dependent on what you're reading you clearly get different interpretations of this and I think one of the common interpretations, which I disagree with, is when people are talking about the bean bag type environment and bring your dogs to work and all of that stuff. As far as I'm concerned all of those things are OK perks perhaps of the environment but they’re not the culture. The culture to me is does your business live and breathe your values? And the culture could probably be summarized by how do your staff talk about your business to their mate. Or another interpretation might be how does your team behave when there's no senior leadership there, does it reflect the values of the senior leadership? And to me that's what that's what culture really is. 


Whose job is it to manage culture?

J: Who's in charge of culture at Ramsac, if there is such a person?


R: We don't have a culture position per say. I mean I think culture is driven from the top. If it's a reflection of the vision and the values, then that started with me 26 years ago. But if you've got the right team, we have this thing called ‘I am Ramsac’ and we've distilled our values into a measurable, everyone's clear what the values are and we measure them and we ask clients to report on them and I'll use tools and conversations along the way to just check.


The cauliflower story

R: We've got this one main thing about keeping IT simple and there was an occasion a couple of years ago now where I happened to be in the office and I overheard a conversation with a client. And I thought oh gosh that's not my definition of keeping it simple and I had a look on my colleague's screen to see who they were talking to and there were talking to a CEO of a client that I know well and I thought oh my goodness this person is not a techie. And this person was trying to have a techie conversation. And I asked them to pause the call and said this is this is not making IT simple. And your conversation is way too deep for on a technical level and the colleague, who was new to the business, and fairly junior in the role, said I'm talking to the CEO. His view was because he was talking to the CEO. His experience of a CEO being me, and I am actually a techie by background, his view was surely all CEOs are. And of course they're not, some CEOs are the least technical people you're ever going to meet. There were a couple of examples like that which I witnessed.

Every quarter we have, what I call, a town hall meeting where we get the entire business together and I decided that I was going to talk to this point. I stood up but it wasn't a rehearsed talk. I knew what I wanted to say, but I was thinking on my feet, and I said imagine you’re in a supermarket and it's a supermarket that you've never been to before and you've gone in because you want to buy wine. You go to the wine section, and you take your time, you choose your bottle of wine, you've made your selection and you're just about to leave, when you suddenly realise that you also need, and the first thing that popped into my head and I have no idea why, was cauliflower.


J: Everyone’s favourite vegetable.


R: Yeah absolutely. So I said, you suddenly realised that you also need a cauliflower. You turn around, and you see a member of staff and you say “excuse me could you please tell me where the cauliflowers are?” 

Now if you’re, for the sake of this example, if you were in Waitrose you turn around and you ask the member of staff could you tell me where the cauliflowers are. All of a sudden you're surrounded by staff and they pick you up and they carry you to the fruit and veg section, and someone will notice the bottle of wine that you've selected and they'll show you their array of various cauliflowers and they'll say “actually that one would go really well with that bottle of wine” help you with your selection, check to see whether you need anything else, carry you to the till, maybe feeding you grapes on the way, and send you off and say “have a lovely day”.

Now if you were in Sainsbury's and this happened, then you turn around and say “excuse me please could you tell me where the fruit and veg are. The member of staff might take you to the end of the aisle that you're on and point out that that the fruit and veg were second on the right and that's where you'll find the cauliflower.

Then I suggested, that if he were in on budget supermarket and you asked a member of staff they might look at you grunt, shrug their shoulders and walk away. The point of it, is actually as the customer you've asked the same question in every single store, but the response that you get and the customer service that you get is as a result of the culture of that organisation.

For us, and for me, making I.T. simple is about making sure when the customer asks the question we pick them up and we carry them to the cauliflower. That's was only ever meant to be a one off thing I said in a meeting but it's amazing how it's stuck, and, even to this day, people still use it as a measure and they use it to measure the service that they get in their own lives. You know you’ll hear people talking about an experience of going to a restaurant or going into a shop and saying you know they really didn't take me to the cauliflower.

And it's great and the other thing that I love about it, what it was it introduced was the ability for people to use it internally. You know within your workplace we all do work for and with each other, and the other thing that I like, and that we hear, is you can ask somebody a question internally or you can ask somebody for some help and you get an answer but it might be the bare minimum answer and you hear people think thanks but that doesn't really take me to the cauliflower. Actually it's a non-threatening way of challenging, at all levels, challenging up and challenging down, in terms of saying I would have hoped for a bit more than that. And that works really well and I think that's great.


Is it a perk or is it culture?

J: Yeah that really resonates with me because I've got this theory that there's effectively three levels of embedding a culture into an organisation and level one and, really, the only level that matters is, as you say, what gets done around here or what gets done around here when the boss isn't about. But then the company grows I've got this feeling that there needs to be some language, something written, some way of communicating the culture and I think what you’ve just told us there about the cauliflower story is a fantastic way of writing something down or, of having a language to use, that isn't the values printed on the wall or written on a mouse mat. And then that feeds really nicely into the third level, where organisations need to get to, and sadly it's often the one where they start, which is where they have all the artefacts around the office. So, as you say, they have the bean bags and they have the popcorn machines and all the toys. So often that seemed to be the be all and end all of culture.


R: I think the other thing is those things, which as I said before, I think that are perks rather than culture, usually have a novelty value. When they’re first in it's great but then it's well this is normal and actually I would like more or I'd like something different. And, therefore, they don't they don't actually drive culturally it's just a way to make where you work nice or different.


J: Yeah and one of the interesting topics, when all the judges got together for the Culture Leaders list, we were just having a conversation before we started and the subject of the office fruit bowl came up. And my my take on that is, it’s great to have a fruit bowl in the office, it’s a healthy thing to do, but it's not culture. And, the moment you know that the whole fruit bowl thing is getting a bit tired is when you get people complaining that there are no grapes. I think it's all or got a bit pushed too far.


The Ramsac Culture Book

J: I talked a little bit about language and I’ve been having a look through the Ramsac Culture book and that was where I was reading the ‘take me to the cauliflower’ fable. Can you tell me about the culture book and what what brought it about?


R: My inspiration for the culture book was Zappos in the states. Zappos are an online shoe business for people who don't know and they've since been acquired by Amazon. Tony Hsieh is the CEO and he wrote a fantastic book called Delivering Happiness. And I found it really inspirational and a fantastic read. In fact, I read it as a business book and I gave it to my wife and said you should read this, she doesn't really read business books but I said I think you should read it because it's an amazing story and they could make a movie of this.

But within that they have a culture book and I thought this was a fantastic idea. My initial inspiration was recruiting is a challenge in this part of the country. There's basically no unemployment, if you look at the true workable workforce. Therefore, recruitment is a challenge and, you know, we always want the best people. And we want people who who fit the culture. We interview an awful lot of people and many of them could do the job but they don't get the job because they're not right fit. And so the challenge therefore is how do you help applicants and how do you help recruitment agencies to understand what it is about Ramsac that makes us different. 

How do you get started with creating a culture book?

R: The idea of the culture book is that I email the staff and I basically say “Can you send me an email to say, what it's like, in your own words, to work at Ramsac. What is it that you like?” And, actually, everybody replies. And what I love about it is it's incredibly authentic. If you were to let your marketing department get hold of this there’s stuff that wouldn't get printed because you think “you can't say that” but, its authentic. People at every level from the most junior the most senior saying in your opinion what is it about Ramsac that you like. How would you describe it to your friend. And I love that.

We've done a couple of volumes of this now and we're shortly going to be doing our third. My original plan was that we would do this and it would be an e-book that I could send to applicants and I could send to the recruitment agent. The reality is, it’s had a real impact and we ended up having it printed and people love it and customers love it. The amount of feedback that I get from customers saying I really like it and I've never seen anything like it. Now it's not my original idea, as I say it’s a Tony Hsieh idea, but it's not commonplace. The other thing is people say is you can tell a lot about the people that you employ by what they say and how they say it so that's good in its own right.

And then the other thing is when applicants come to Ramsac they've already got a good feel of it. Part of the induction program that we have for all new starters is that I see them at the beginning and the end of the induction program. Almost without exception in the session at the end of the program people will say “what I love is it’s exactly as the culture book says it was”. And, even though it's still in people's own words and it's authentic and all the rest of it, there's still a little bit of doubt in people's minds in terms of can it really be that good? And it's really rewarding when people turn around and say that it really is that good, it's exactly as I expected. I think from that point of view it's brilliant. I would recommend that all businesses create their own version of a culture book. And just. Get staff to say, in their own words, what it means to actually be a member of your team.

Should a culture book be a living document?

J: You talked about you’re nearing version 3 or volume 3. What changes, is it a living document?


R: It's not a living document. At Zappos they do it as an annual thing, the 2017, or 2018 version and I shied away from doing that. When I first did it the first version was called Volume 1 on the basis that I didn't know how often I was going to actually print it. Really for me it surrounds staying relevant and getting the views of all the staff. I look at when we did volume one we were probably 30 staff and we’re 60 staff now. So, it's about staying relevant.


Company values

How to come up with company values

J: Great, I get that. And at the heart of it is the the ‘I am Ramsac’ and the values that you've tailored around the name Ramsac. How did the values get created? What process did you go through to come up with those values and how long have they been in there?


R: I think we sanity checked the values numerous times over the years in terms of what the staff think our values are. There is a great exercise which is a card deck of values to work out what your values are. We don't we don't currently do it, but I've gone through phases of doing this with the team to work out what their own values are. And it's really hard if you ask a person what are your top six values. But this card deck allows you to go through the process because you've just got lots and lots of cards which specify values. The idea is that you go through an initial pass of: these are very important to me; these are important to me; these don’t register; and the final column is these are actually important for me to avoid as in these are so not me that I must avoid these. I used to go through that process because it's interesting to understand what drives people. And of course, we're all different.

I then also used to get people to go through the same process but through the lens of Ramsac. Part of that exercise for me was so, if I understood what your personal values are, when you do the Ramsac exercise, it's a sanity check to see have you got our values, have you understood them. 

The final piece to it is are they compatible? If you had somebody with a value that was important to avoid and it was one of our core values, then clearly that would be a bad thing. We sanity check the values as a leadership team and just make sure that we still agree. We’ve now got them so that they fit Ramsac. So they are reliable, approachable, motivated, skilful, adaptable, and committed. They fit Ramsac and the truth is they weren't always that clear cut, but we didn't have to do a lot of work to change what the values were to actually fit Ramsac.


J: I was going to ask which came first. Did you try to build it around the name or the values and clearly it was the values.


R: Yeah totally. Totally. I mean values ultimately can’t be a neat marketing exercise. As we said at the beginning of this chat, that the values are absolutely core to your culture and what you focus on is what you get. So, if you decide what the culture of your business what you want that to be then you need to focus on the values you want to represent both in the workplace and out in the marketplace.


Closing questions

Where do you have your best ideas?

J: I think that's fantastic. Just as a couple of sort of questions to end with just so that we can understand a little bit more about you. Where do you have your best ideas? Where do you do your thinking?


R: When I'm driving or when I'm running and, essentially, I guess it's when I'm concentrating on something else or just not concentrating on anything at all. I think the other thing is that I have an awful lot of bad ideas and I'm lucky to have a team around me where I come up with my latest whole load of ideas. And I get far more “what that’s crazy that would never work” than I do “yeh that’s brilliant” and I think you’ve got to be humble. I know businesses where if the MD or the CEO has an idea they expect everybody to accept that and run with it. Everybody in the organisation has ideas.

We have a role actually at Ramsac that lasts two months, it's a rolling two month position, and everybody gets a turn and it's called our Chief Ideas Officer. When I first announced that we were going to have a new CIO people obviously thought it was IT based as the role traditionally is. But, for us, it’s about ideas and, as I say, everyone in the organisation gets to do it and it's about thinking and developing ideas.

Most ideas are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. So it's just about taking ideas and having conversation and if that conversation is being driven by a board level director as opposed to a junior member of the team, you get different responses and there is great strength in that. So, as far as I'm concerned, there’s no such thing as a bad idea. Some ideas need to be evolved and, when I said I have lots of ideas myself and not all of them good, I like that because when I when I hear back from people going “no that will never work” it doesn't mean that it's not a good idea. I'm just getting feedback and I'll then take that away and think “no you're right it wouldn't work like that but what if?”


J: I love the idea of take my idea which maybe isn’t brilliant and add it to your idea and add on two or three other people’s ideas and all of a sudden you've got something that's a bit amazing.


R: Totally. I think sometimes as well some of the jokey ideas that we sometimes get, some people will totally dismiss them. If someone's saying something in a bit of a half hearted way, there's often something that's driving that, there’s something that's triggered that thought and if you can explore that a bit there’s sometimes, not always, but sometimes a gem in there to be found.

If you were stranded on a desert island what would you take with you?

J: Great absolute and I said a couple of questions the last one is, if you're stranded on a desert island what's the one thing that you would take with you.


R: Probably my iPhone, assuming probably that it's solar powered.


J: It’s not that much of a deserted desert island. Look Rob this has been brilliant. Thanks for taking the time out to speak to me and just as a very last thing how can how can people connect with you. How can they get to talk to you?


R: You can visit the website Ramsac and on Twitter I’m @robmay70

Get started with your 14 day free trial

Start your free trial


Sign up to get the latest HR and people management insights straight to your inbox