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Q&A with Udemy’s CLO: How to build a purposeful company culture

Posted on: October 13, 2023Updated on: October 20, 2023By: Maliyah Bernard

To build a culture that’s aligned with what your employees want and need in today’s workplace—and get results—you need to address the systemic issues within your organization. This means your thoughtfully phrased mission statement will only make the difference you’re hoping for if you pay attention to the underlying issues that might be inhibiting people’s ability to bring the right behaviors to life in everyday work. 

Melissa Daimler, Udemy’s Chief Learning Officer and author of Reculturing, knows how to make this happen! She recently joined JD Dillon, Axonify’s Chief Learning Architect, on an episode of ITK to share insights into how you can create a desirable workplace. They discussed practical ways that companies can increase their workforce’s agility and performance by improving employee experience, development, engagement, inclusion and well-being.

Here are some other highlights from their conversation.

ITK with Melissa Daimler, Chief Learning Officer at Udemy

Dillon: Everyone seems to have a perspective on what culture entails. What is a culture within an organization to you?

Daimler: Culture is three things: behaviors, processes and practices. It’s an active practice—not just a value on a website or a wall. Culture is the set of observable behaviors that exemplify what that value is. If I saw you being innovative, what would you be doing? What would you not be doing? 

Although some aspects of culture ‘happen’ in organizations naturally, we always need to be intentional because it happens by either design or default. Since it’s such a significant component of how our teams want to work with each other, we should be designing it.

Dillon: How has your perspective on culture been shaped by your experiences at previous jobs or roles early in your career?

Daimler: I’ve had an opportunity to work in some iconic high-growth companies. 

Adobe had an amazing culture. I was there for almost 11 years and learned a lot about what good culture and leadership look like. I realized the powerful connection between a mission, purpose or vision, the organization’s strategy, and the culture. I call it the ‘why, what and how.’ I saw it in practice quite a bit at Adobe, and while we didn’t call it culturing, we intentionally evolved our culture at least three times. When I was there, we evolved our business model, changed CEOs and bought two major companies. These moments were opportunities to pause and look at what we were doing strategically as a business and how we support that through our processes, practices and daily behaviors from leaders on down. Adobe was a huge input on why I wanted to write my book. 

Twitter was also just a great company for me to come into. It was a very high-growth company, moving fast to figure out how to keep its culture’s essence while scaling. Once again, I learned the importance of culture being this active set of behaviors you embed into your hiring, development and feedback processes and need to reinforce daily. 

WeWork was, I can say now, an opportunity to learn what doesn’t work. And I go into some detail about that in my book. You can watch all the movies and the books out there. We know what happened, but it was still such a great thing for me to experience when the purpose, strategy and culture are very disconnected, and the fallout from that as a business. 

And then Udemy had the opportunity, and we’re still culturing today, to evolve what was already a great culture but to be much more explicit about our values. What they mean and what they look like. We regularly reinforce them in our strategy and our everyday work with each other.

Dillon: What could companies outside the tech space borrow from tech company culture? And vice versa?

Daimler: One of the things I’ve appreciated about working in tech is the idea of getting the first version out there. Quick prototyping. 

We had that at Adobe, especially as we were growing. Frankly, we realized we needed to get faster. And then, at Twitter, I remember Dick Costolo, our CEO at the time, asking me to deliver a strategy on management development—the second week that I was there! I thought I had at least three months to get something to him. I went into his office with half a sheet of paper with scribbles. It was no PowerPoint, and it was not perfect. But I got practiced in showing that first concept, that prototype, and getting feedback very quickly so that we could then iterate and evolve from there. 

Other companies can learn a lot from letting go of perfectionism and not getting customer involvement too soon but letting people co-create internally.

On the other hand, some companies outside of tech do a better job of connecting and reinforcing the strategies they initially set out at the beginning of the year. And if there are changes to that strategy, they know what changed and what they’ll do in response.

Sometimes, because we move so fast in tech, we forget these simple steps to bring employees along, and it confuses them. Then it takes even more time for us to say, ‘Let’s back up. We’re pivoting and moving in this direction now.’ 

Dillon: I’m curious to get your perspective on whether culture is a good reason to bring people back into the office. How does proximity impact culture, especially for frontline organizations?

Daimler: I have a lot to say about this. Culture is how work happens between people, the behaviors, processes and practices. It is agnostic to any office. And in fact, the silver lining of the pandemic was that people realized culture is not the ping-pong tables. It’s not free food. It’s not nap pods. It is how we work with each other. And it’s about intentionally designing that and consciously practicing that. So conflating the perks, or the fun stuff, is a disservice to culture. 

While I love getting together, coming back into an office and connecting with people, that doesn’t mean I’m less connected to the people on my team who are in New York, London or Tokyo. Rather than ‘culture,’ what we’re craving is connection. Returning to an office in person deepens and accelerates those connections. But by no means do I think that the only way to build culture is if you have people physically in the same place. That’s lazy thinking. One of the questions I can’t stand is, ‘How do we get our culture back?’ because really what that’s saying is, ‘How do we get people back into the office?’ And again, culture never left. It is an active and intentional set of practices that we are responsible for driving daily.

When it comes to remote work, it is important that there is a consistent culture across an organization and that you have a common language. But organizations should be wary about taking away anybody’s identity, especially now as we’re talking more about skills-based organizations and thinking about our work around skills versus jobs and roles, structures and movements of employees. It’s getting even more critical for organizations to have a common language, but there are different ways of achieving that. 

On my team, we review and audit our own practices every quarter. We look at how we’re communicating, how we’re connecting and whether there are different practices we want to evolve, change or eliminate based on how we’re working. We’re always talking about how we’re working as a team and how we can foster that unified identity. Any team needs to be connected to that bigger cultural conversation.

Dillon: What role does learning play in building a great organizational culture?

Daimler: When I think about connecting all the different parts of culture, I often see leaders defining certain behaviors that have no connection to any skill, which then has no relation to any kind of leadership experience. And so you throw your employees over to a school or an external program for two weeks, not knowing that the curriculum is not tied to anything we talk about internally. They come back, and there’s no kind of reinforcement opportunity. This is such a huge missed opportunity between culture and learning.

Once you’ve defined behaviors, think about what skill will help reinforce that behavior. Here’s a quick example: When I started in my role, we had this value of ‘always learning’ and there were a million different definitions. One of the behaviors we identified was, ‘When we’re truly learning, we are constructively debating.’ We wanted our teams to create productive friction with each other. But then we realized we didn’t have the skills to do that here because people were conflating ‘debating’ with being mean. And our workforce typically has a very nice culture. Part of our responsibility as an organization and a learning team has been to ensure that whatever we expect culturally in the system, we give people the skills to achieve and practice. Now, we hold workshops on how to debate constructively. We openly talk about what productive friction looks like. We roll out decision-making and roles and responsibilities tools so that people are clear about collaboration. 

When developing learning experiences for an organization, ideally, you’re developing skills that tie directly to those cultural behaviors and the strategy you’re trying to continue to execute.

With an understanding that culture is an ongoing practice—not a quick-fix issue to put on HR’s plate—(re)watch the full ITK episode on demand and take a look at Melissa Daimler’s book Reculturing for more culture-building insights.

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Maliyah Bernard

Maliyah Bernard is an academic writer turned content writer. As a former frontline worker, she loves writing about all the ways organizations can support these essential workers smarter.

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