The culture crux

I’ve always been interested in culture. I trained as a microbiologist and growing up cultures of bacteria was a routine – indeed, crucial – part of my laboratory work.

But they could be fickle, those cultures. Even if I did everything by the book and used the most careful of aseptic technique, some days they simply wouldn’t grow. Or worse, some pesky yeast would grow instead. This sporadic inconsistency could make even the best-planned experiments go awry.

 

One might think that researching companies would be a world apart from researching pathogens. I certainly did. But since trading in my pipettes for pens and joining Baillie Gifford’s investment graduate scheme, I’ve come to appreciate many parallels between these fields of work. Topically, the importance of cultures has very much stayed the same. For every company I research, I dedicate just as much energy into analysing culture as I do business strategy and accounts. Be it the world’s biggest tech firm or the greengrocer down the street, so much of a company’s success comes down to its people. The ‘idea’ matters, the financials matter, but so too does personality, team structure and the working environment encouraged by management.

Just as with bacterial cultures, business cultures can go sour and compromise a perfectly good company.

Unlike bacterial cultures, there is no recipe or simple measure for successful company cultures. What is a good company culture? Is there ever an inherently bad culture? Or does effectiveness depend on the types of people at the company and the task at hand? The challenge of answering these questions and understanding the role of culture in business success intrigues me, and it’s an area of my investment research I’m actively trying to improve. From reading studies on the neuroscience of teamwork to collaborating with our Artificial Intelligence team to incorporate some ‘big data’ analysis; from touring company headquarters to speaking with former employees and customers, I’m slowly building up a picture of what enduring, effective cultures look like. 

Analysing culture will always be a work in progress, I think. Research may bring to light some new cornerstone of effective teamwork and our expectations as employees or customers are likely to evolve over time, too. Most importantly, we’re speaking of people here – will we ever fully understand how others think or feel or inspire teams that change the world? But the importance of staying on top of this elusive subject should not be understated. Just as with bacterial cultures, business cultures can go sour and compromise a perfectly good company. Even cultures that merely strain relationships – say, damage employee morale or frustrate underserved customers – can trigger the demise of a business. Noting that this can happen, no matter how impressive the idea or how strong the balance sheet, is a valuable lesson for all investors.


And so we come to the concluding parallel between my past and present career: that you can’t grow a bacterium or a company without culture. At Baillie Gifford, we think that awareness of this helps us join the dots in an investment case and identify the most exciting business opportunities in our ever-changing world. But, while I now focus on culture through an investment rather than microscope lens, its importance to my daily work remains. From science to finance, I’ve come to believe that culture really is the crux of the opportunity.

 

Want to share your views on this article? Email [email protected].

Diane Esson

Investment Manager

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