Q&A: What does a Culture Head do? with Chetty Arun

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This week we’re in conversation with Chetty Arun, Culture Head, Razorpay. We talk about What does a Culture Head do?

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Q- What motivated you to make the shift from a design role to a Culture Head role despite having no prior experience with people? How did you approach this transition, and what sparked your interest in such a change?

I was a part of the founding team. We all started working together in Jaipur, even before graduating and later decided to set up our office in Bangalore when they joined Y Combinator. Initially, with a small team of about seven to eight people, we all pitched in and did various tasks. Coming from a design background, I naturally took up design responsibilities and also dabbled in product, marketing, and sales.

About four or five years ago, as our team grew and we hired more people, we felt the need to ensure that our company culture remained intact and that we maintained a strong connection with our employees. So, we formed a voluntary team called the culture committee. Over the years, this committee went through multiple iterations to define its role and purpose.

Essentially, the culture committee became the eyes and ears of the organization. We collected feedback from employees, shared it with the founders and leaders, and provided suggestions for improvement. Initially, our company's cultural values existed mostly in the minds of the founders and the co-founding team. It wasn't explicitly documented or communicated, but people naturally embodied those values. However, we realized that as the company grew, it was important to define and articulate these values clearly. Because now people we hired were going to hire.

Therefore, the first task of the culture committee was to identify and define our cultural values from a bottom-up approach. We wanted to understand what the employees believed our values should be. Surprisingly, the perspectives of both the employees and the leadership aligned quite well, without any contradictions. This gave us confidence that we were on the right track and that we had a cohesive team with shared values.

Q- Culture is easy to sense but very hard to measure. How did you go about doing that?

Evaluation and Measurement:

To assess how individuals and teams embody these values, we conduct focus group discussions and one-on-one conversations. Although we haven't fully determined quantitative measurements, our culture team acts as researchers within the organization. We analyze each team's performance based on the values and provide recommendations for improvement.

We qualitatively evaluate and define how teams exemplify specific values. For example, we can observe how the product team in the banking unit demonstrates customer-first principles through thorough research involving engineers and designers. Each team may exhibit values differently, and through discussions and analysis, we identify areas of strength and areas that require improvement.

Collaboration with HR:

As a volunteer-based culture committee, we collaborate with the HR team but do not directly report to them. Our committee consists of individuals who have full-time roles but are passionate about shaping the culture at Razorpay. Everybody deeply cares about the company's values and actively contributes to maintaining and enhancing them.

Quantitative Measurement:

As I take on the culture head role full-time, one of my objectives is to establish quantitative measures for our cultural values. I aim to confidently report on the progress of Razorpay's culture in six months, for instance, stating that on a scale of 10, we have improved from 8 to 9. While I am still working on developing a logical framework for this quantitative measurement, I am committed to bringing a more data-driven approach to evaluating our culture.

Overall, the culture committee has been instrumental in defining and fostering our values over the past five years, and we continue to evolve and enhance our cultural practices.

Q- Do you report to the HR team? How do you collaborate with them?

The culture committee operates independently from the HR department, with a direct reporting line to the founders, Harshil and Shashank. We gather information, conduct analysis, and provide confidential insights to the founders. They then leverage their authority to address any cultural issues or improvements with leaders within the organization. This approach allows us to effectively drive cultural enhancements. Our longstanding presence in the company since its inception provides us with some level of leverage and credibility in this process.

Q- How do you establish trust with line leaders and employees to have confidence in your decisions and rely on your insights, considering that the culture committee operates independently from HR and may be perceived as an external entity?

There are two levels of trust that the culture team needs to establish to be effective in their role-

The first level is gaining the trust of people on the ground, so they feel comfortable opening up and sharing their issues with the culture team.

To build trust with people on the ground, the culture team needs to demonstrate their value by helping teams resolve conflicts, improve ownership, and spread a culture of teamwork. This requires a lot of work on the ground, and the culture team needs to show results within the first three to four months.

The second level is to build trust with leaders, the culture team needs to continue to deliver results over time. While the culture team has gained some leverage due to the good work they have done in the past, they need to constantly demonstrate their value to maintain this trust.

However, there is still room for improvement in the culture committee. The team needs to be more effective and efficient in their work to gain the trust of leaders and people on the ground. The culture team needs to establish clear objectives and assess what kind of team they need to achieve these objectives.

Q- Coming back to the HR topic. Why are you not stepping on HR's toes?

Partnership with HR and addressing insecurities:

The culture team recognizes the overlap between their role and that of HR and has made efforts to partner with HR professionals. They have emphasized that their presence and interaction with employees do not imply that HR is not doing its job. Insecurities may arise within HR teams, thinking that the culture team's involvement is due to HR's shortcomings. However, the culture team aims to clarify their role as complementary rather than competitive.

Overlapping roles: Culture team and HR business partners:

While there is overlap between the culture team and the HR business partners, they are not completely aligned. HR business partners primarily focus on operational tasks, feedback collection, and employee satisfaction. On the other hand, the culture team's primary focus is on upholding cultural values and ensuring their integration into the organization. While there is significant overlap, the culture team's perspective extends beyond purely business-related goals. This interconnectedness provides a clear ROI equation for the culture team's position.

Justifying the culture team's role in relation to business goals:

The culture team justifies their role by highlighting the interconnectedness between cultural values and business goals. They ensure that every individual's work, regardless of their position, aligns with the company's vision of becoming the one-stop money movement platform for businesses. By emphasizing the connection between cultural values, work practices, and business objectives, the culture team demonstrates the ROI of their position.

Q- How do you plan to measure the impact of the culture team's initiatives and alignment of culture values with business outcomes, considering you are still in the process of determining the measurement approach? Do you have a specific timeframe or a six-month plan in mind for implementing and evaluating these measurement strategies?

Measuring the impact of culture values can be complex as each value has different implications across different teams. For example, agility may be measured differently for product teams, customer support teams, design teams, legal teams, and content teams. Each team may have its own unique metrics to assess agility or performance. The culture team aims to define specific measurements for each value and track progress accordingly. By quantifying the current state of cultural alignment and setting goals for improvement, they can evaluate the growth and impact of the cultural initiatives over time.

Q- So, there are multiple subcultures present in different teams. While diverse cultures can foster innovation, they can also pose challenges in executing changes. How will you navigate that?

It’s natural to have these subcultures. You can’t expect everyone in the org to exactly follow a textbook of practices. The practices that fit one team might not fit the other. Despite the presence of multiple subcultures within Razorpay's teams, it is important to ensure that these subcultures do not contradict each other or the company's values and vision. The culture team, along with HR partners and team leaders, is responsible for navigating through these subcultures and ensuring their alignment. By addressing any contradictions and promoting practices that align with the overall vision, the culture team aims to foster a cohesive culture that supports the goal of building a one-stop money movement platform for businesses.

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