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Strength and Clarity: How to Build a Robust Internal Culture



As part of an ongoing interview series, Five by Five’s group head of human resources and facilities Katie Whittam-Hayes explains how the agency has baked strength and clarity into its philosophy

Strength and Clarity: How to Build a Robust Internal Culture

Today, the communications landscape is more cluttered and competitive than it has ever been before. For brands, carving out a space against that backdrop can be an uphill battle. 

Global independent creative and production agency, Five by Five, has developed a strategy to instill an internal culture which prioritises people and communication. Whilst there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, there is a set of guiding principles that the agency applies to every facet of what it does. Namely, Five by Five identifies strength and clarity as the two keys to effective brands and communication.

Over the course of this series of interviews, we’ll find out how Five by Five integrates the ‘strength and clarity’ philosophy into everything it does. Today, we speak to the company’s group head of human resources, Katie Whittam-Hayes. 

Having built up five years of HR experience across different agencies in the Lawton Communications Group, it’s fair to say that Katie knows people. In her current role at Five by Five, she’s responsible for weaving strength and clarity into the agency’s internal culture. To find out how that works, LBB spoke to Katie… 

Q> Hi, Katie! In the context of your role, what does ‘strength’ mean to you? 

Katie Whittam-Hayes> Hello! Well, I suppose in a general sense it helps to be strong when you’re in an HR role. We’re always in that position between what’s best for our agency and what’s best for our teams. You have to be strong both with and for people - a lot of stuff happens to people over the course of their working lives, and HR is the place that they go to work through it. Chuck a tonne of employment law and legal complexity into the mix, and having a reserve of strength is a big positive for anyone working in HR.

In the specific context of Five by Five, there’s a culture that both embraces and draws upon that strength. So for example, I’ll often play devil's advocate with the rest of the management team and push back on their ideas in order to stress-test their thinking. We all do that for each other, as it’s a helpful process for everyone and there’s a broad receptiveness to it within the agency. 

Q> And, in turn, do you feel that questioning and holding other people’s ideas to account fosters a sense of accountability and resilience as well? Is it something of a cycle? 

Katie> I do think so, yeah. People are at the absolute core of Five by Five, and that process  is now becoming a healthy habit for our teams. So for example, people know what to expect from me in those kinds of meetings now and before I get a chance to interject they’ll say ‘before you ask about X Katie, I have thought of that’! So, yes, it’s about helping people and strengthening their ideas. Overall, the point is for everyone to be accountable and solutions focussed in their thinking. It’s easy to point out what the problems are but it’s about working together to solve them.

Q> On the topic of the pandemic, have ‘strength and clarity’ become even more important to you guys because of that? 

Katie> From an internal perspective I think it has. A huge number of things have been unclear in people’s lives, and that of course feeds into HR. In terms of communications, there’s been an added complexity which strength and clarity can absolutely help to cut through. 

We’ve worked hard to make sure that our organisation and messaging is strong and clear. So for example, in recent times there’s been a general feeling of uncertainty about whether, or how, people are going to be heading back to offices. We’ve been really strong and clear on this, and our policy now is that employees are free to choose both where and when they work. Again, for us it’s about prioritising people. 

I think it’s been important to give people both certainty and flexibility during what could have been a confusing period of time. The less time you spend worrying about that sort of stuff, the more time you can spend focused on creating great work and doing what you need to do for your family.

Q> Realistically, do you think you could have pivoted to this ultra-flexible model if you didn’t have that bedrock of strong and clear communications already embedded in your culture?

Katie> No, we probably couldn’t and we can’t get complacent and think we’ve cracked it either - it’s a constant area for consideration and attention. This last year has proven that we can uphold that culture when we’re not all sat next to each other, which has given everyone a lot more confidence. That’s been a good thing for a lot of reasons, this being one of them. 

Let’s not forget, though, that there will always be some things which are better in-person - and probably stronger and clearer in-person, as well. This isn’t about saying goodbye to our office culture, far from it. Because we trust everyone to have the strength to know how they work best and what’s required for each task, and we are able to provide our team with that flexibility. 

Q> Outside of Five by Five, have you seen an example of the kind of strong and clear communication that we’re talking about here? 

Katie> One that immediately comes to mind is the message the CEO of AirBnb shared with his staff last year, when that business was grappling with the nightmarish reality of the pandemic. The news he was imparting was awful, however that made the fact he got the tone spot-on all the more important. It was absolutely strong and clear - and it came from the heart. At a time of immense damage and uncertainty, that letter would have provided people with clarity. 

Q> Finally, honesty must be an important part of how you establish this culture. How do you go about creating an environment where people feel that comfort, honesty, and confidence? 

Katie> Yes, that’s a big part of it. We’ve recently been doing some work internally about how we articulate that and bring our core values to life. We’ve always had certain things and habits which are good examples of it, but we wanted to put them into more of a framework so that colleagues can understand how they fit into our day-to-day at the agency.

Above: A set of images produced by Five by Five to highlight the values they are instilling into their internal culture.

The first thing is that we have a clearly articulated vision for where we’re going. That provides clarity, as does detailed information about how we’re going to get there. We also have a clear set of values, and as a result of that our colleagues know both what is expected of them and what they can expect from each other. 

How that translates into tangible stuff is, for example, through initiatives like placement schemes and graduate schemes where we bring people in at a junior level and support their development. We also have a really generous learning and development budget which we use to help improve opportunities for our people to learn and progress their careers. That’s in addition to formal qualification sponsorship - I’ve done a masters degree and postgraduate diploma since I’ve been here! So, once again, our people are a huge priority for us as an agency. 

And finally, our approach to recruitment is also a huge part of how we fuel this culture. It’s really hard to get much from a CV beyond an initial indication - so when we interview someone, it’s first and foremost a case of looking at how they align with our core values. One question we often tend to ask is ‘what’s been your biggest mistake?’, because we’re looking for a certain level of openness and honesty where people embrace the lessons they’ve learned from the times they didn’t get it right. 

Above anything else, though, it is about values. If you’re applying for a role with us and you show that you can buy into our philosophy of strength and clarity, you’ll be a great fit.

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Five by Five UK, Wed, 02 Jun 2021 13:23:26 GMT