How we keep our secret ingredient fresh

Company culture is the lifeblood of an organisation and we have protected ours by ensuring junior staff learn from the masters and everyone feels inspired and motivated, says Portland head of HR and talent Gill Robinson.

It is the big challenge for any young, successful business. How to retain the culture behind your success, when that same success means you are growing very fast?

It’s a challenge we recognise at Portland, which has seen double-digit growth every year since Tim Allan set us up in 2001. When we moved into our apparently spacious offices in 2008, we had 40 staff. We’ve just passed the 150 mark, forcing us to take four floors in the building opposite. We’ll be on the move again soon.

We are acutely aware of the need to ensure that our growth does not erode the reasons we have done so well in the first place. We live in absolute terror that one day we will wake up and find we have become just another PR firm.

Culture, of course, is hard to define. But for us, it means combining the ambition and hunger of a challenger start-up with the quality and polish of a Rolls-Royce services firm.

And because we believe this culture is our secret ingredient, we are determined to protect, nurture and adapt it as we have grown. We want it to be embraced by everyone who works at Portland at every level.

Driven by our values

So we don’t just stick our values on the wall or website. They guide us in everything we do. When we say ambitious, we mean for ourselves and for our clients. We think big and work hard. If you’re a steady Eddie, Portland perhaps isn’t the best place for you.

We mean it when we talk about teamwork. We’ve no time for glory-hunters or those with sharp elbows. If they sneak through our selection process, they don’t last long. And One Portland also means no rival P&Ls to encourage friction and in-fighting.

When you grow so fast, it is inevitable that most people will be relatively new. But key to keeping a winning culture is that – while always bringing in new talent across the board – a core of people from our founder to the partners group and a number of big characters are very much long marchers.

But it is the relationship between these figures and newcomers that is crucial. We operate in small teams without rigid hierarchies. New recruits get the chance to work closely with our most senior staff. It’s one of the aspects of Portland people value most.

It is also one of the ways knowledge and experience is shared so staff keep developing. Every week, you will also find formal training programmes or lunchtime Portland Academies being run.

New recruits, for example, come together for sessions that include Alastair Campbell on strategic communications, Tim Allan on the company vision and George Pascoe-Watson, The Sun’s ex-political editor, on Media 101.

There’s nothing stuffy about Portland or the way we work. We pride ourselves on being open to change and challenge. Our overall attitude is summed up by the phrase ‘new every day’. It’s not about working through an old playbook. So we don’t just teach new people the Portland way but want them to help us improve it.

As well as sharing knowledge, everyone shares in our success. There are quarterly bonuses based on business and individual performance. And ten per cent of profits – without a cap – go into a bonus pool shared out annually pro rata.

Satisfied staff

No company, of course, grows without stresses. New client wins can mean an extra heavy workload. And there can be plenty of other irritations from cramped office space to internal communication breaking down.

You’re never going to avoid all these problems but you can listen and deal with them quickly. Our way includes a staff survey every year and a full company away day to discuss it – followed by a long party to celebrate the past year.

And that’s another way we try to ensure we keep what’s made us special. We want to make sure working here remains fun. Whether it’s all-staff parties, Friday drinks or regular celebrations when targets are hit, we make time and provide money to ensure everyone gets to know each other.

There is nothing better for breaking down barriers or ensuring a culture free of pomposity than, for example, some late-night karaoke. Come and find out for yourselves if you think you fit the bill. You won’t, I promise, have to sing if you are too shy.

Views in brief

You know you are in the right place to work when...
You are motivated and inspired to go beyond what is required of you. It’s also where you realise your potential while having scope to grow, and your talent is nurtured.

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