Main Content

The importance of culture

It is a widely accepted maxim that great businesses focus on growth and profits, and that employees find job satisfaction in working in a culture geared towards achieving objectives that focus on business results. It is an undeniable fact that businesses need to grow to invest and innovate, and that employees find some personal happiness in helping their company achieve its broader goals. But does chasing growth and profit make your business a great place to work? And as your business grows, how do you maintain a motivated culture?

Elmwood has been on the block for a good 40 years. We grew from humble beginnings in a small town in West Yorkshire to an international brand design consultancy with offices in Leeds, London, New York, Singapore and Melbourne and a list of clients we could only have dreamed of four decades ago. We have made plenty of mistakes but also learnt a thing or two about growing and expanding internationally while not losing touch with what makes us who we are.

Here are five lessons we’ve learnt along the way:

1. It’s about purpose

screen-shot-2018-06-06-at-11-30-52Having a ‘why’ that explains your existence isn’t just limited to the clients you work for or the brands that you design. Agencies and clients alike need to identify with a deeper purpose that goes beyond just achieving results. Besides understanding what they do and how to do it, they need to feel inspired by why they’re doing it. For example, at Elmwood we believe in the transformative power of design. We believe that everyone we work with and for will be better because of design. As such, our people are more than designers or client services whizzes. They are change-agents and problem-solvers, and people that apply their unique skills to help our clients make sense of the world and make it a better place for them.

2. It’s about people


But for a purpose to stick, it needs to be lived every day. It needs to be reflected in your values and behaviours. This isn’t easy to do no matter what size your business is, but it gets more tricky as the business starts to grow nationally and internationally. Ensuring that the people you bring on board believe in the same things you do can help overcome this challenge. At Elmwood, every new joiner around the world receives a little hand signed book called ‘What makes Elmwood, Elmwood’. In it we explain what makes us tick, what we value, and what to expect. But it can also be reinforced by sending some of your key people to help set up your new locations to embed your value and behaviours. That way the understanding of your purpose gets transplanted and, of course, adapted to fit the local culture and the diversity of the local team. Reinforce that with totems, icons and communications that support your purpose, and no matter where you go you’re always ‘at home’.

3. It’s about development



For the workplace to be a great place to work, it needs to respect your abilities and stretch them beyond where you think they could go. One of the most valuable pieces of career advice I was given, was given to me by Jonathan Sands, the owner of Elmwood. He told me very simply that I needed to step outside of my comfort zone. And it was true. He subsequently started to push me in directions I’d never considered possible. I went from being a production assistant to becoming what I am today, managing partner of our UK business. And we take a similar approach to everyone who works at Elmwood. Everyone has a learning and development plan and we look for opportunities for people to work on diverse projects in diverse teams that stretch their skills.

4. It’s about the work



The same holds true for the kind of work we bring into our studios. Nothing is more demotivating than working on a project that you don’t believe in. Working on a project you can believe in and being able to use design to take brands to new places motivates everyone. We all want to get up in the morning and work on something that makes your socks go up and down. That puts tremendous pressure on businesses to get work in that makes your people tick. This doesn’t always mean working on big projects with big budgets and big expectations. At times these projects can be the most challenging ones to work on, but extremely rewarding for the team. Working across diverse, international teams in which everyone has an equal voice and where extraordinary ideas are championed. Working on smaller projects or projects that stretch skills and ability can be just as motivating but brings different challenges. The key remains, however, that the work you bring into the business is congruent with the kind of work you believe in.

5. It’s about diversity

elmwood-london-group-web-pic-620x330We work in a young industry where people actively seek out experiences that take them to the next level. This can bring a headache to many companies, but embracing different types of people with different career expectations is good for business. Diversity encourages creativity and improves the skills of the wider team, and results in positive outcomes for clients. We have a saying at Elmwood, which is that whether you’re with us for six months, six years or until you’re sixty, we want our people to enjoy the ride. When they leave we want them to have left a mark, to feel that they have added to their knowledge, and to have got even better at what they do and brilliant at how they do it.


To end where I began, greatness in business is not only quantified by the rate of revenue growth or by the bottom line. It is also measured by the happiness and satisfaction of your people. To paraphrase Richard Branson, if you look after your people, they will look after the success of your business. It’s that simple.

About: Sarah Dear

Sarah has over 25 years’ experience working in the design industry and has worked with some of world’s most prominent brands. She started at Elmwood Brand Design Consultancy as a production assistant in 1992 and is now Elmwood’s UK Managing Partner. Elmwood’s roots are in Yorkshire, but with studios around the globe, including London, New York, Singapore and Melbourne. Sarah has a French degree from the University of Birmingham, as well as a CIM Diploma in Marketing from Leeds Business School. 

Sarah is a non-executive board director of the Leeds BID, the goal of which is to help make Leeds a more attractive and successful city to visit, live and work in. She has recently been appointed to sit on the UK Council for the Creative Industries Federation.

Image credit: Elmwood


We use cookies to help improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you agree to our use of cookies.