June 14th, 2018 — BY NICOLE MICHAELIS

Meet Eva, Culture Designer at culturedesign.org.

Conversations on Culture is our interview series on discovering the art and science of great company culture. This week we meet Eva-Maria Zoll, founder and owner of Berlin-based culturedesign.org.
Eva-Maria Zoll has a fascination for the way humans relate and work with each other and is the founder and creative mind behind culturedesign.org. She's curious to explore how to design culture, which she believes is a needed interface of business and people.

We spoke to Eva about her passion for Culture Design.

In this interview, Eva-Maria speaks about her background and how everything in her life and career pointed her towards working with culture design.
— Hi Eva. What should we know about you?
That's a hard question to start with! I like working in the role of a culture designer and communication strategist. I'm driven by finding answers to questions such as how do we work with each other and how do we relate to each other as people, teams, as a society. There's this massive field of interesting questions I feel really passionate about.
You're the founder of culturedesign.org. How did you venture into that?
Since I can remember, I've been interested in culture. In 2014 I joined a startup as the first employee. It was a very interesting challenge for me to help build up a team, product, and company from scratch. In 2015, about a year after the launch, we ran into some pretty big difficulties. Two teams were literally not speaking to each other. In a team of 12 people that makes 6 against 6 so it was a real problem. On top of that, the atmosphere was turning negative and trust was decreasing. It just didn't feel good to go to work anymore. That's when I realized we really needed to change something dramatically.

That was an interesting turning point for me. I realized we had executed and done stuff for a year, but we never once talked about how we work with each other. That was a real blow for me personally. My dad works with management consultants, training them on process, organization, and collaboration so it should have come naturally for me to pay attention to that.

We needed to pay close attention to the team and make some fundamental changes. So the founders and I took charge of creating the culture for the company.
How did you go about that?
I considered culture as something that you can design just like a product. You have to define processes similar to the way you do in product development. I was fascinated by the question of how teams work with each other and the process behind trying to answer it, I wanted to explore it more.

I realized that many startups were facing similar problems. Statistics show that 9 out of 10 startups fail because of a lack of culture. We live in a time where paradigms are burning down, so we have to design a way to work with each other in a much more conscious manner.

That's how I started culturedesign.org.
What does a Culture Designer do?
I like the term Culture Designer because it was one of the roles I filled when we were building the culture at my former employer. I had been sitting on many interesting chairs in the company. Communication, brand, business strategy and then also culture. That made it even more obvious to me how closely culture is tied to the entire business - from communication, branding, to business strategy - and the fact that you can design it like most other parts of business.

I realized more and more that a Culture Designer is a role every organization really needs. Everything changes so fast nowadays. Nothing is static. A Culture Designer is in close touch with the needs of an organization, people, and business and make sure they are communicated and met. The role needs a multifaceted skill set. You need to understand business, communication and people as well as having a designer mindset. I really can see how this role will become more and more valuable as the business world develops.

Does every company need a Culture Designer?
Culture is something that sets the DNA of the company. Classically, founders or management are supposed to own this. However, often these people are very busy with running the business and don't spend time on this very important issue. In the best case, founders are the first culture designers in the company. However, when the company grows, hiring a person with a neutral perspective to take care of cultural needs can be of great value.

There needs to be a solid space for questions around culture. A Culture Designer can create, maintain, and nourish this space. It's really about enabling everyone and giving them the tools to make themselves and the business successful.
— What's your definition of a great culture?
A great culture for me is when you as a human being feel like your needs are being paid attention to and you are enabled to do your best work. In the best scenario, you don't even think about culture, you just feel empowered and thriving.
— How do you assess culture?
I find it quite interesting when people just interact. If you listen to people talk to each other and observe how they listen you can already draw a lot of conclusions. The way how emails are written, Slack messages are written, general communication. All those things say a lot about a culture. I like to look at the artefacts of the company: what do they write on their website, how does the office look like, where do people meet, how do they work, what do they share on social media. It's telling.
— Does that mean every company should have values?
People shape a company and people have values so every company will naturally have values.

At my former team, we really had a difficult time with the whole value defining thing. We had values but it was always challenging to translate them them into actions. We rarely questioned our values when we made decisions. Why? Because it's really hard! It requires constant attention.

The problem with values is not if you have them or not, but rather if you make them actionable or not. It's all based on awareness. It actually starts with us as individuals. We need to reflect on our ourselves. What do I value? What is important to me and how does that guide my work or my way of leading? Only if we are aware of our individual values will we be able to see if we can align them with company values. So I think companies should only have values if they are willing to work with them.
— Thank you for these lovely insights, Eva! Is there anything else you'd like people to know about you and your work?
Just that I currently give expert advice to companies who want to take first steps towards designing a better culture. You can reach out to me via my website culturedesign.org.

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