Simon Hay thinks about culture every day.
Instead of sitting in an office, Hay spends the majority of his
time working with clients and talking about clients to show his
employees how important they are to dunnhumby’s culture.
“Culture is the thing that can have the biggest impact on how
we benefit from talent,” says Hay, CEO of dunnhumbyUSA, a relevance marketing company that analyzes customer purchase
decisions for consumer packaged goods and retail companies.
“Then it’s a question of what actions you can take to reinforce
those values and build the culture.”
Since the U.S. headquarters of British-based dunnhumby
opened in 2003, Hay has worked to build a culture with clear values and vision. With the company growing rapidly — from 14 to
300 employees in nearly five years and fiscal 2006 revenue of
$100 million to fiscal 2007 revenue of $150 million, his No. 1
objective is to create and maintain the culture while dealing with
“Obviously, every day, we want every employee, myself included, to
live those values to the best of their ability,” he says. “The other
opportunity that I have as the leader of the company is to reinforce
the communication of those values and that culture but also to help
put in place processes or actions that can actually reinforce those values in the culture, either the way that we design our offices or the
way we do our work.”
Establish core values
Hay’s key to a successful culture is establishing a core set of values.
Creating these values and making them an integral part of the culture
shapes the way employees work and interact each day and helps
them better understand the company and its culture.
“Values tend to get overlooked,” he says. “So find out what are the
things that differentiate you, describe what’s important to you and
your employees, and what they can act upon?”
Talk with employees and clients about what they see in you. Hay
got feedback from external partners, clients and employees to determine the company’s values. He says getting feedback from others
was the best way to find out what made dunnhumby different from
Once you have that information, summarize it into the few things that
define your company and are believable, realistic and truthful.
“If your employees look at your values and go, ‘I’ve never seen that
here,’ obviously there’s no connection between your aspiration and
reality,” Hay says. “Values have to be recognizable and inspirational,
something that people believe and are important to the organization.”
The values also need to be simple and relevant for employees to
“Sometimes, there is a tendency to list 10 or 12 things, but if you
don’t distill them down, how are people going to remember them
well enough to act on them?” Hay says.
Dunnhumby’s culture ended up being based on only four core values: collaboration, curiosity, passion and customer first.
Once you have your values in place, you need to communicate
them to make sure employees understand and live them each day.
Hay not only uses things like monthly company meetings and brown-bag lunch sessions for employees to share thoughts and ideas about
culture, he also has tried to integrate the values into the very fiber of
For example, he has created an open office environment to reinforce collaboration among employees.
“Our office is completely open plan, no one has an office, and that
includes myself,” he says. “Everyone has the same size desk, the barriers are 12 inches high above your desk, you can’t even get away
from the person next to you. That’s a very deliberate design because
it facilitates communication.”
There are also other areas inside the office, including a café-type
space and open meeting areas, for employees to get together and collaborate.
To reinforce the curiosity value, Hay holds regular innovation sessions for employees to bring forth new ideas or products to help the
Regardless of how you try to integrate your values into your culture, be consistent.
“Values are something we talk about every day, they’re not rolled
out for the annual business presentation and put away in a cupboard
for the rest of the year,” Hay says. “You’ve got to continually highlight
great examples of people living those values, reward those people,
and consistently communicate (those values) so that they absolutely, 100 percent become embedded in everyone’s daily thoughts and
“You’ve got to see a connection between your values and everything that’s going on every hour of every day.”
Hay has created a 360-degree review process that is 100 percent
focused on the values, how they align with the vision and how
employees are meeting them.
“It’s not what you do in your job, it’s a rating by your manager, yourself, your colleagues and direct reports on how you do that job in
terms of those values,” he says. “That gives clear, specific feedback
of what they do well in terms of their behaviors, living up to the values and where they can improve.”
There will be people who achieve or exceed living the values and
meeting goals, ones who live the values but struggle with meeting
some targets, and those who cannot meet them at all. You need to
address the problem and see if the employee will be able to stay with
the company or not.
“If you’re achieving numbers but not living the values, you’re ultimately destroying them,” Hay says. “Behaviors, values and the sense
of purpose that builds an organization are long term, and anyone
who is destroying that is also destroying your long-term value.”
Having a clear set of values from the beginning alleviates some of
those employee problems because you can hire people who meet
those values. For Hay, having the open floor plan is the first filter for
“Our open plan tends to self-select out the people who care
whether their desk is one size or what chair they have,” Hay says.
“Being clear about that in the interview sets people’s expectations.
You’re either going to find that exciting and liberating or that doesn’t
meet your needs.”
Have a clear vision
Along with core values, you also need to set a vision that will help
you keep everyone working toward the same goals.
Without a successful vision, you cannot create excitement among
“If you don’t have the vision right, you can’t get the sense of purpose
or the focus and delivery from those talented people,” Hay says.
“Without vision, you’re mismanaging the talent you have.”
DunnhumbyUSA’s vision was created as part of the company’s regular review of brand values and position.
“We do it through engaging our employees, leadership and customers to ensure that we’re pointing in a direction that’s right for
them and our business,” Hay says.
Vision is similar to values in that you need to make it core to your
company strategy, understandable and aspiring to your employees,
and tie it to your actions and business plan. Hay says if your vision is
not connected throughout your company, employees and clients will
be able to spot it, causing confusion and problems.
“It has to describe what you’re trying to achieve and inspire your
people,” he says.
It also needs to be kept short. When vision statements are lengthy,
the average employee won’t be able to remember it all and can only
remember parts of it. When that happens, employees all learn different parts and head off in different directions.
As with the values, it’s important to remain consistent in your communication of the vision. If it says one thing one year and something
else the next or if it’s too far-reaching, the vision may be wrong.
“Your vision has to be unifying to get people pointed in the right
direction toward your bigger goal and objectives,” Hay says.
The vision also needs to be relevant so employees know how their
job fits into it.
“If you see the vision and go, ‘I’ve got no idea what my job does
toward that,’ either you haven’t been clear in how you’ve described
that job or your vision is incorrect,” Hay says. “There’s got to be a connection between people’s work every day, where the business is today
and making it clear where you want the business to be tomorrow.”
Getting employees to connect to the vision can be simple, starting
with a written statement that explains how each person fits into the
Hay says you can also set up a performance management system
that will take your vision, break it down into smaller pieces and give
clear goals to the different parts of the organization on how to
achieve that vision.
“These are the six to seven things we are trying to achieve this
year,” Hay says. “As we move through the organization, they get cascaded down. People might not necessarily own all of those, but the
part they own, they know where it fits, and ultimately, it goes back up
to the vision. That ensures a direct connection between everyone’s
focus and targets for the year in what they do and our overall vision.”
Keep the culture a priority
Hay makes sure to keep his culture the No. 1 priority so that it can
envelop any changes that happen in the high-growth company.
“We set the expectation that standing still is not part of our plan,”
he says. “We either grow or die.”
“Everyone goes through formal training and introduction courses,
not just from their managers but by the senior leadership and myself.
We see communication of our vision and culture and the training of
our employees as a leadership team responsibility.”
Making culture your top priority requires you to keep it No. 1 on
your list, no matter what other tasks come up. It also means making
the culture fun so that employees will keep it their top priority, as
Hay makes sure to take time to celebrate successes, recognize
great performers, and keep employees engaged and informed — all
in a fun way when possible. For example, the company recently
ended its financial year and celebrated with beer and pizza at lunch
for all employees, with a more formal recognition later in the year.
Establishing a successful culture also means holding yourself
accountable to the same standards as your employees. Hay goes
through the same reviews and 360-degree feedback as his employees
because it’s hard to lead employees unless you’re getting their honest
“You have to be fanatical about the living, delivery and communication of those values,” he says. “You need to be clear on what you’re
aiming to do and prepared to be measured against that.”
Without a focus on culture, Hay says dunnhumby would not
have achieved the level of success it has, including growing 40 to
50 percent per year in revenue since 2003 and being named one of the
best places to work in the Cincinnati area.
“It’s not easy,” Hay says. “Absolutely make it your No. 1 priority. It’s
easy to be distracted by the tasks of running a business, but you can
only do so much as one person. If you get the culture right, you can
have, whether you have hundreds or thousands of employees,
pulling or pushing much more successfully to the vision than you
just trying to do it yourself by managing those tasks.”
HOW TO REACH: dunnhumbyUSA, (513) 632-1020 or www.dunnhumby.com