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February 21, 2013

We Are City [think]

February 21, 2013


If you love city-building and Indy, but have not subscribed to We Are City’s Briefing yet, you really should. We thought so well-before John Beeler reached out to me for an in-depth piece (they call them [think]s) about culture.

The Briefing comes out each Tuesday and Thursday, and features quick tidbits of awesome things happening in Indy and around the world, plus the occasional [think].

You can see the email featuring the culture [think] here. My expanded thoughts are below with Beeler’s original questions:

John Beeler: A few weeks ago I talked about “Hoosier Hospitality as Business Model.” SmallBox, a web, design, and marketing business up in Broad Ripple, is a local firm embedding neighborliness and “doing-good” – Hoosier Hospitality – into its core values. I asked CEO Jeb Banner a few questions over email.

1. Talk to me about “culture”: what is it in a broad definition, and what specifically is the culture of Smallbox? And what is the function of Smallbox’s culture? What purpose does it serve?

Culture is the umami of organizations. That hard to capture and describe but irreplaceable element which defines an organization’s unique character. It can manifest through language, behavior and environments but at its core it is an essence which requires a habitat. This habitat starts with the people in the organization- they are culture “carriers”, but also includes everything from the spaces they occupy, the work they do to their brand, their values and their customers/followers. Culture needs a healthy habitat to thrive.

To define the culture of SmallBox would be to talk about that habitat. Which is probably why you hear SmallBoxers talk about Broad Ripple, Indy, the tech scene, Beer Fridays, Factory Week, “Boxisms” etc. We are essentially describing our habitat when we talk about these things but the words we use, our language, reveals our cultural essence, our umami. We can’t always say why we feel that something has that essence but we can sniff it out collectively.

So the function of culture at SmallBox is to be a filter for opportunities. A healthy culture keeps the tank (habitat) clean. But to create a healthy culture you have to start with purpose. We believe that every healthy organization is driven by a compelling purpose. The culture both informs and realizes that purposes. Abstracted from and also informing, if that makes sense.

Sometimes I think of organizations as inanimate objects that awaken to their selves- they have a “We exist” moment when they become collectively self-aware. Those early stages of organizational consciousness can lack form but as the consciousness increases the organization begins to recognize its own voice and grows in confidence and authority. Eventually pride becomes an issue for organizations, inhibiting growth, but early on it is very useful. Pride protects and creates a safe habitat for growth. But it must be shed as the organization matures. It must allow itself to become vulnerable which is a paradoxical shift required to achieve true greatness. Greatness is not prideful and does not need protection.

This is hardest step for an organization to make, to become vulnerable and shed pride/ego. It’s a step, to be truthful, that we (SmallBox) struggle with. I think we are still very much in the prideful (look at us!) mode. My job as a leader is to nurture the culture into a “life is great” mentality away from “we’re great!”. If you are familiar with Tribal Leadership you will recognize that this is the shift from Stage 4 (we’re great) to Stage 5 (life is great). Right now, SmallBox is very much a Stage 4 company but as we strive to be truly great we must shed our organizational ego. Not an easy thing to do.

2.  Do you think there’s a “culture” in Indianapolis? What is it? If there is on, how can we as a city cultivate it?

I think there is a culture for Indy but we are still just waking up to it- the consciousness thing. We are beginning to find our voice and build our language but it’s still early. When I describe Indy’s culture I often say things like “Indy’s a great place to start something, people are willing to make time for each other and truly want to help.” I think we have a very collaborative culture that values substance over style. A no-BS mentality.

Cultivation of culture is a tricky thing but it comes down to selflessness. Those that are building it must put the people it serves first and not their specific agendas. I feel that this is happening with projects like the Cultural Trail and the Speakeasy. These aren’t ego plays, they are being done for the people not the leaders. This is why I think one of Indy’s core values is collaboration. I also think it would be valuable for the city to identify its core values. I would love to be a part of the team that works to help define them. In fact I think the city could use a purpose statement as well. For SmallBox it’s “empower greatness”. What would Indy’s purpose statement be? I’d love to see that happen, I think it could be a powerful tool to filter opportunities.

3. Likewise, philanthropy is a crucial part of Indianapolis, due in no small part to large businesses like Lilly. But the decision to give, or be neighborly, and be philanthropic can be a big decision for a small business. But you guys have made that decision. The SmallBox Nice grants are a great example of this. How can small businesses like SmallBox be philanthropic from the ground up? Why should they be?

To be honest we don’t feel like we have much of a choice- we see great stuff going on and we have to support it. It would be against our nature to not support great things as much as possible.

Nice Grants came about from giving the team $5k to do whatever they wanted. They could have pocketed the money, blown it on a nice party or bought some nice office equipment. But they wanted to invest in the community so they did.

You can see a glimpse of the future of marketing in how non-profits serve their communities. Businesses need to stop yelling at their customers (advertising) and spend that money supporting things they (customers and business) believe in. So in many ways you can see a new way of marketing begin to form. Some call it “cause marketing”. My challenge to companies is- why not take your marketing budget and decide to invest it in your community? What would that look like? That is essentially where things like Nice Grants, 24 Hour Web Project and all that stuff SmallBox does. This creates activity around our brand which is essentially what marketing is, right? Every company has a marketing budget, look at it and rethink how you spend it. Heck, just give a chunk of it to your team and say “do something”.

4. Do you have any advice to an existing small or mid-size business on converting their culture over to a more neighborly, to a “Hoosier Hospitality” business model?

#1: Trust your people. They are dying for a chance to impress and will not let you down if you really, truly extend them your trust. If you don’t trust your people then you need to either fire them or yourself.

#2: Model behavior. Leadership through action, become part of your community, join boards, donate time and money to causes you believe in. Your team will begin to mimic your behavior if you are committed to it.

#3: Be consistent. Culture needs to be a core focus of the company, not a couple day retreat to work on “team building”. Watch your language and actions. Too often leaders say one thing and do another when convenient. If you commit yourself to a purpose or cause then it must stand above everything else even opportunities that seem too good to pass up.

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