LinkedIn’s “collective personality” is its driving force says Asia Pacific Managing Director Olivier Legrand. Yet even with that success, culture is the thing that keeps him up at night
Google “organizational culture” and you’re liable to get 9 million hits – from textbook definitions to TED talks to myriad academic articles and management white papers. Quippable CEO quotes tout culture’s towering role in the success of their companies. It’s the subject of countless business books and biting corporate satire – “Dilbert” comics would make for very handy, “what not to do” reference guides – and it consistently ranks high in C-suite surveys as a boardroom priority.
For all its current dominance, the topic of organizational culture didn’t become a subject of inquiry until 1960, gaining traction, particularly among scholars, over the next two decades. Cultural concepts such as stories, symbols and rituals were used to analyze and understand organizations. Culture came to be seen as the key to a company’s progress, and it was sold as the management panacea for all corporate ills. Managers were singled out as the people who have the most significant impact on an organization’s culture. Culture was a job for the top.
Unfortunately, like many such ideas before it, culture as a wonder drug proved, at best, a placebo. Despite numerous studies and a multitude of theories, it became apparent that it was impossible to produce the practical, catch-all solutions that many managers were yearning for.
As its name suggests, culture, even within the context of a corporation, is organic, evolving, even irrational. In its intangibility and susceptibility to the human condition, culture requires a company to flex all its muscles – leadership, communications, organizational performance – before it can achieve an enduring advantage. Yet it’s undeniably true that such an advantage exists – for companies that are able to cultivate such an organic, sustaining culture.
From its beginnings, LinkedIn has accepted that challenge. The world’s largest professional network with 500 million users across 200 countries and territories, LinkedIn is a hypergrowth company, catapulting in less than 15 years from startup to Silicon Valley powerhouse with offices around the world. Steady revenue growth and other business achievements – including a high-profile acquisition by Microsoft in December last year – are widely reported, but so too are its initiatives and commentary around corporate culture. A recent Forbes article described LinkedIn's culture as “thriving.”
That dynamic culture is tangible throughout the company’s Singapore office, where we spoke to Olivier Legrand, the Managing Director of LinkedIn Asia Pacific. Perched on the 29th floor of a sparkling skyscraper in the city-state’s central business district, the office is the company’s Asia Pacific headquarters.
When we visited, it was a hive of activity – mostly work, but also play. Employees are free to hop into one of the game rooms (video games seemed to be the challenge of choice, but classic board games also line the shelves of the inviting space), play a round of ping pong or hit the in-house, professionally managed gym. It might be reasonable to assume this is how a vibrant culture is built, with rec-room amenities.
But Legrand insists that the culture is more of an outcome than a formula.“It’s one thing to have a ping pong table,” Legrand says,“it’s another to create an environment where people feel safe to actually play ping pong in the middle of the day – otherwise, all you’ve really got is a piece of space-wasting furniture.”
Legrand joined LinkedIn in 2012 – months after the company went public – and now leads more than 1,500 employees in 13 offices across the region. He says that arriving at LinkedIn’s culture today took time, experimentation and a “full bottom-up approach.” The last point, bottom-up, is a theme that Legrand returns to often in our discussion. LinkedIn’s culture works, he says because it is “owned by everyone.”
Judging by Legrand’s own attitude, expressed in our interview, the company’s emphasis on making each employee feel like an owner and ambassador of their culture is paying handsome dividends.