The path to becoming culture pioneers

Written by Chris Hardy - August 24, 2022

In August 2022, we were excited to be shortlisted for a Culture Pioneers award from HR Zone, for our efforts to build a learning culture. In this article, I’ll be sharing the various culture initiatives we put in place that helped us make this shortlist.

We’re so proud that our work in this area has been recognised this year. It’s testament to the hard work that the team have been putting in over the past two years to make sure that the initiatives worked, and had the intended positive impact.

Our success is thanks to the team’s buy-in, including every team member’s ongoing support and dedication to their learning, and each other.

Image that of the Culture Pioneer 2022 Learning award 'badge' (a white circle with a green triangle in the middle) against a dark blue background. Text on the left states that we are a Finalist for Learning.

As is typical of agency life, we are blessed to have a constant stream of projects on the go, and our day-to-day working lives are fast-paced and exciting. This can also be overwhelming at times, and people do not always feel equipped to speak up and address issues that can affect team morale.

In an effort to conquer potential issues, preferably before they arise, our MD Tom felt that our approach to learning and development was crucial and he took the (then) experimental step of hiring a team coach.

Coaching for everyone

This is where I came in! My journey with Wholegrain began with a conversation with Tom in 2019, about how it could be possible to support the team to become a ‘deliberately development organisation.’ 

Instead of (often ineffective) ‘leadership training,’ the focus was to be on creating an environment where every team member feels supported to learn and grow. In offering both 1:1 sessions alongside group work, the team is now comfortable with an appropriate level of vulnerability. This opening up – welcoming the showing up of our whole selves in the workplace – allows for the sort of meaningful working relationships that facilitate real growth. 

Some of the work I do with the team includes:

Tailored team training sessions

Voted for by the team, these sessions cover a wide range of topics including the importance of deep work, self-management, how to approach challenging conversations and handle the complexity of modern work and the personal and professional challenges that inevitably arise.

Allowing the team to vote on what they feel would be most helpful to them, ensures a high level of engagement and positive outcomes from these sessions.

Facilitated group conversations

Occasionally, we created small groups of 4-5 people, who would support each other to implement the training topics. Within these more intimate spaces, team members felt more able to show their vulnerability and open up in new ways. This helped them to support each other through challenges as they arose, and fostered an increased sense of belonging within the team.

Seeing the system

As we developed further in our learning journey as a team, we hosted regular ‘system seeing’ conversations. This idea comes from Jennifer Garvey Berger’s work on handling complexity in fast-paced work environments. Using our weekly team call for these conversations, we would take a step back from the day to day.

This allowed us to observe any patterns and unconscious tendencies in our ways of working that didn’t serve us. Once we could ‘see the system’ in this way, it helped us to then address any issues at the appropriate level.

Developing emerging leadership

As part of our focus on the team’s growth in the past few years, we have welcomed a number of changes to existing team member’s roles and responsibilities. These have arisen out of our increased awareness of where the bottlenecks were disrupting our workflows, or had the potential to do so. 

New roles often require transition to a new kind of leadership. Being able to offer 1:1 impartial coaching support around the changing responsibilities has helped team members meet any challenges that arise head on, embracing them as a learning opportunity.

Co-creating a cultural manifesto for the future

As a coach who has worked with many organisations over the years, my experience with Wholegrain has been, and continues to be, immensely rewarding. As a part-time team member, being part of the system has really helped me get a deeper understanding of the team’s dynamics, and see what works long-term. 

One of the key things is ensuring that people grow as they are working. Learning and development shouldn’t be an occasional exercise but, much like giving and receiving feedback, it should be ongoing, so that it becomes part of the culture. Ensuring the team takes time out to see the system they’re working in is also crucial, so that issues can be addressed holistically.

In order to ensure everyone is working together, having a shared vision for the future is essential. One of my most enjoyable sessions with the team was the Cultural Manifesto workshop, in which we all stepped out of our roles and looked at the future of Wholegrain together. In letting go of what is, and imagining what the future could feel like, we co-created a ‘North Star’ that everyone is invested in reaching for. 

If you implement any of the initiatives that have worked for us, we’d love to hear from you! You can get in touch via social (we are @eatwholegrain on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn), or you can even email me directly [email protected] I’d personally love to hear what positive differences they make to your teams and how well you work together.