Leanne Elske

Zetta Genomics and the creation of culture

As a new company surges into existence, it is focused on objectives that turn transformational ideas into a successful business. As Zetta Genomics has attracted the investment and partnerships to scale, our People Team is creating a talent structure that will drive innovation, engineering, productisation, marketing, sales and everything in between. We believe, however, that success depends on another and often overlooked structure: culture.

There’s a lot of talk about organisational culture – some of which can seem vague or difficult to quantify early on (which is why it’s so often greeted with an eye-roll). At Zetta, culture isn’t simply finding warm and fuzzy words and putting them on the website. Culture isn’t a box to be ticked. Culture won’t be found on a page in the annual report. 

Culture defines everything that we do at the most basic level – to be identified, codified and embedded from the very beginning. It should  be understood by, and communicated to, everyone in the team. While a company’s culture might be complex, it must be so intuitive that everyone can own, celebrate and share it. 

There are many definitions of organisational culture, but I see it as the formalisation of the shared values that permeate a company, and the shared behaviours that these values inspire. Simply: how the company treats others – and how it expects others to treat the company. 

Everything pivots on a company’s culture. It binds people, policies and products into a single purpose. Building cultures together, decisions around whether that purpose is progressive or toxic will be made by the people who work there.

Cultural cost

Toxic cultures come with a high cost. I know because I’ve worked in them. I’m sure we all have. They encourage so many of the unpleasant aspects associated with the working world: presenteeism-oriented, task-driven, innovation averse and creatively atrophied. I didn’t work in these environments for long. 

People are complex organisms – each with their own unique experiences. Given care, attention and opportunity – always coming from a place of trust – they will amaze and delight you. Treat them badly, however, and they will rightfully walk away.  

In my experience, toxic cultures are far more onerous to maintain than healthy ones. Why tie your People Team up coercing and de-escalating, when it could be nurturing and supporting achievement? Why see Communications devoting untold hours to disingenuous messaging when it could be inspiring, shaping and sharing ideas? Why crack the whip on moribund product and sales teams when they could be self-driven by people who truly believe in what they do? 

In toxic cultures, we very quickly see this turn into a waste of time, money and – most costly of all – talent. 

Cultural impact

Progressive and open cultures have a tangible impact on every aspect of a company’s performance. 

A company that embeds respect, encourages and fosters its people, listening and acting in response to feedback internally is a company that will naturally do these things externally. These cultures inspire the effective, experience-led and authentic engagements that allow businesses to build trust, enhance products and build lasting customer relationships. 

Companies that welcome honesty, don’t apportion blame and give their people the freedom to act – even when this means taking risks – will embed innovation. The confidence to surface wholly new ideas constantly refreshes existing products and pump-primes the development  pipeline.  

Progressive cultures will also have a positive impact on talent acquisition. In a post-Covid and post-Brexit world, talent in the Life Sciences and Tech spaces is at an extreme premium. The people able to harness the power of genomic data are few and in high demand. The best performers can – and do – choose the organisations with the best cultures. Those that think throwing money at cultural shortcomings will solve the problem quickly realise that a big pay cheque won’t compensate for their dysfunctional workplaces. 

Finally, the confidence and creative freedoms that these cultures inspire make for safer organisations. The airline industry, for example, has embraced the idea that knowing when mistakes are made, and their causes, is far more important than blaming individuals for what are actually systematic failures. It means that air travel is the safest mode of transport in the world. It’s an approach that healthcare systems have tried to replicate – with varying degrees of success. The freedom to succeed must also be the freedom to try and fail.  

Cultural creation 

Creating a culture takes time and a very real commitment from everyone within the company. While it might seem counter-intuitive, freedom must exist within a framework of systems and processes – transparent to everyone within the organisation – that support and protect it. Wishing a happy and functional culture into existence won’t cut it. Freedom without process isn’t freedom at all; it’s chaos. 

I spoke earlier about a choice between progress and toxicity. Zetta Genomics has very clearly opted for the former. My appointment – alongside those of Ludo Chapman as our Chair, Bryony Burrows as our CFO and others – are powerful statements of intent. Zetta is investing, at the earliest possible stage, in its people and in its culture. 

It’s why I came here. We are a new company with truly transformative genomic data technologies that will play a major role in the adoption of pervasive precision medicine – improving the lives of millions of people across the globe. Our mission matters and so our culture is the very real foundation for our ongoing and sustainable success.