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How Dr. Martens defined its company culture without losing its soul

Hello, I'm Holly Smith
Hello, I’m Holly Smith

Chief Culture Vulture at Dr. Martens

In January 2019, we hosted a Culturevist event to bring together people to discuss how the onboarding process impacts company culture. We started by telling our story of how Dr. Martens defined its culture without losing its soul. Here’s a short extract of what we shared.

Throughout the twentieth century, Dr. Martens was a family-run business.

The business was fiercely independent but following threats of bankruptcy in the early 2000s, in 2013 we were acquired by a retail turnaround specialist.

The private equity company laid down ambitious plans to generate £400 million in four years, more than double the headcount and increase the number of stores globally from 15 to over 100.

With so many people joining the business, and other long-term employees moving on, combined with the pressure to meet tough targets, Dr. Martens’ strong brand identity and independent culture were at risk of being diluted. It became a key priority to identify and articulate the business’s global strategy and increase communication from the top down.

As our business grew, our culture was at risk!

We needed to decide what to preserve and what to evolve within our internal culture.

In 2015, over a 6 month period, we held 6 focus groups involving 78 employees from different areas and all levels of the business with a combined service of 644 years.

Using these insights, we extracted the essence of the business into “Rebellious Self-Expression”; a simple, powerful and memorable phrase felt to be at the heart of everything Dr. Martens does.

The next step was to identify our company ambition, what we believed in, who we are including our fundamentals and the stuff that sets us apart (which other companies may deem as values).

Then, we need to ensure the whole global business knew this and we lived the brand everyday. We did this by:

  • Capturing everything and literally putting it “on the record”, imprinting them on a seven-inch vinyl, complete with artwork, sleeve design and sleeve notes and sent it to each employee.
  • Setting up a leadership program – “Leading the DM way” which looks at how we want to be as leaders and what the ‘fundamentals’ and ‘stuff that sets us apart’ (our values) mean to us and over a 12 month period we managed to reach over 80 managers in the UK and Europe.
  • Launching our On the Record newspaper – written by, and for, the people of Dr. Martens. Not only communicating key commercial milestones, but celebrating people for their hard work and individual talents.
  • Ensuring our new head office in Camden, was a true representation of our brand values, identity and culture.

But, this was not just an internal branding exercise, it has been about continuously influencing behaviour with the support of:

The Culture Vultures. A group of volunteers from across the business who were tasked with being our culture ambassadors.

The Culture Vultures bring to life our fundamentals everyday – the stuff that sets us apart from other companies. They use our engagement survey data and drive communication to ensure we are constantly listening to our people and keep Dr. Martens a great place to work. Some of the feedback they have brought to life include:

  • Learning and Development: 68% of people have access to the learning and development they want. This is an 8% increase since launching “lunch and learns” which give people the opportunity to share their skills and knowledge internally over a complimentary lunch, and “twist days” – an opportunity for retail store staff to shadow someone in an office to gain insight into their job role and we’ve consequently had 17 internal moves in the UK in 12 months.
  • Communication: 80% of people have confidence in the company, a 9% increase since the implementation of LifeWorks, an internal social networking platform which allows people to connect more easily and promote their hard work, and monthly townhalls form the Global Leadership Team with the objective of updating everyone on our performance and priorities against our global ambition.
  • Wellbeing: 80% of people feel their wellbeing is genuinely supported.To support mental health wellbeing, in the UK we have implemented mindfulness rooms that appeal to all senses and are filled with mindfulness resources. We have over 30 people across UK and Europe trained as a Mental Health First Aiders and rolled out a global Employee Assistant service with toolkits and a confidential helpline.

The Global Leadership Team focused many hours of discussion to identify our priorities. This led to the birth of their strategy, the DM4, representing 4 key priorities: Direct to customer (DTC) Acceleration, Operational Excellence, Consumer Obsession, and Sustainable Global Growth. And in 2018, for the first time in DM history, 70 global managers were gathered at an event where they communicated exactly what was needed to achieve their ambition.

These efforts have resulted in a 68% global engagement score (+1%), an impressive achievement in such a large, fast-growing organisation. 86% of people understand how their work contributes to the goals of Dr. Martens, and 64% believe there is open, honest two-way communication. Additionally, revenue growth of 25% accompanied a profit increase of 27% to £37.5mil and the opening of 21 stores, bringing the total to 94 (as of end 2018). Ensuring they have the right people doing the right things in the right way, Dr. Martens are only getting started on their exciting culture journey.

Our story is a truly an incredible journey lead by the people at Dr. Martens and supported by the very top of the business. Over the last 4 years, I have learnt a lot working with the Global Leadership Team and with the help of Amanda Fishburn, Head of Change, Communication and Learning. But, as we grow as an organisation it is very important we continue to nurture our culture. Currently at Dr. Martens we:

  • Try to bring to life our fundamentals and what sets us apart in every job description globally, although this is written by the hiring mgr so can be inconsistent
  • We send out a brand history timeline and induction pack to every person that is offered a position however, this hasn’t been properly refreshed in a long time
  • Due to rapid growth we are unable to set up specific working spaces for people on their first day because most people are now hot desking
  • We have an amazing immersive experience in the first month that brings to life everything we have spoken about but.. Only if you work in the Camden office.

But we want to know – how do we continue to do the right things in the right way but tailored to individuals? Whose role and responsibility is it? Onboarding is an essential step in the life cycle of an employee’s “career”, and often times not enough resources go into making it a comprehensive and positive experience.

What top tips for success do you have?