In the latest episode of Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast, we sit down with Natania Mathany, Head of People and Culture at the mobile game development company A Thinking Ape.
In the latest episode of Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast, we sit down with Natania Mathany, Head of People and Culture at the mobile game development company A Thinking Ape. In the interview, Natania discusses how core values and community impact employee retention, and how they contribute to her organization's award-winning culture.
Listen to the podcast or continue reading for a summary of the discussion, where we touch on topics including:
- How Core Values Define Company Culture
- Building Community Through Human Connection
- Creating a “Safe Space” for Your Employees
When your business is named Most Admired Corporate Culture Winner, you know you're doing something right.
And for the team at the mobile game development company A Thinking Ape, who received the accolade in 2018, it's clear why. Their amazing company culture all comes down to their core values and approach to leadership.
"I strongly believe that if you have buy-in from your leadership team on the importance of culture and how that aligns to your business strategy, that’s going to make you really successful," says Natania Mathany, Head of People and Culture at A Thinking Ape.
In the latest episode of Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast, we sit down with Natania to discuss how core values and community make a big impact on employee retention, as well as the ways those elements contribute to A Thinking Ape's award-winning culture.
According to a survey by SHRM and Globoforce, 47% of Human Resources leaders said employee turnover and retention are their top challenges. Replacing former employees costs your company both time and money and affects company culture – with employees constantly in and out the door, it's inevitably difficult to cultivate a cohesive sense of community.
It's simple: engaged employees are more likely to stay in their jobs. In fact, businesses with teams of highly engaged workers have 59% less turnover, according to Gallup's State of the American Workplace Report.
So, as a business, what key principles can you apply to ensure your employees stay engaged, enthusiastic, and – most importantly – onboard? Natania shares the three keys to success for A Thinking Ape.
Oftentimes, when people think of company culture, they think of things like beer on tap and a ping-pong table in the common room.
But, Natania says, culture isn't really about perks, pints, and games. It's about core values.
"Culture, to me, is about people living the values of the organization," she explains. "It’s how the company shows up every day and the people who make it up inside. It’s about the environment that the company creates for its employees to show up every day being their best self and support each other to be better."
A Thinking Ape has four core values:
- Having Wonderful Arguments
- Best Ideas Win
- Keep Growing
"We use these values as the lens and the filter for our decisions," Natania continues. "We give people a lot of trust and ownership over their work, we encourage our teams to engage in wonderful arguments or healthy debate. We really like to expose our blind spots and talk about failures. It’s common practice here that we do postmortems on things that went wrong and didn’t work so that we can use it as a learning tool for our people to grow, which is actually a great segue to our Keep Growing value. We believe in and encourage growth across the organization on a company, team, and individual level."
Core values and company culture are the foundation of a successful organization. A strong culture acknowledges that employees are the most important asset a company has – and that they are the magic ingredient for continued success.
Ultimately, connecting with others is the basis for creating a community and, subsequently, culture. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a friend at work are seven times more likely to engage in their tasks.
"People want to be a part of a community where they can help each other, they learn from each other, and are part of something bigger than just themselves," Natania says. "It's about that human connection piece, creating an environment where people feel they can be authentic and true to who they are, and they can be learning and growing. I think if you can build those types of practices within your company culture, it definitely has a direct impact on retention."
For A Thinking Ape – well-known for the chat platforms they build within their games – there's an interesting parallel between the communities they foster in their games and the emphasis that the team places on their in-office community.
"Our mission is about building communities and most immediately, those are the player communities in our games," Natania says, adding that they've had players who've met in-game that have gone on to get married and also some who have rallied together to help a fellow player in need after a natural disaster. "There’s been some amazing things that have happened. I personally love our mission because I feel like it’s a great way for us to demonstrate community building in so many ways. We can look at our products and see the cool things that are happening within our game and then we can look inward in our organization. We work really hard to align our goals so that we’re all working towards the same outcome. And a lot of that has influence over our products, but also the environment that we’re rallying together and creating here internally."
According to Natania, one of the best ways to encourage community and live your company’s core values is to ensure that your employees have a safe space to create in.
"It’s all about creating a space, in my opinion, based on trust and ownership, flexibility, and vulnerability," she says. "So, by creating a safe space for people, they can feel they have control over their work, their growth paths, and that they can make mistakes without fear of retribution and they’re going to be rewarded for giving you feedback. That creates a really interesting and challenging environment for people."
How can you ensure that you’re building that type of culture? Natania makes a few suggestions:
- Survey your employees and take action on their feedback
- Always be willing to iterate with employees based on the needs of the business and how your workforce is changing
- Be flexible – don't get stuck on doing things the way you've always done them
At the end of the day, building a great corporate culture goes back to leadership. The leaders of your company can have the largest effect on company culture in their responsibility to lead by example and encourage the creation of the company’s values and culture. They’ve got to embody the change they want to see.
“All of this really started with the commitment from our founders to placing a lot of emphasis and [putting] resources into carrying out and building and sustaining an awesome culture,” Natania says. “Their commitment to that has been key to our success.”
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Yasmine Shemesh: Welcome back to Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast. This podcast is produced by Outback Team Building & Training, a leading team building, training, and consulting provider for organizations across North America. I’m your host, Yasmine Shemesh, and on today’s show we have a very special guest joining us from the mobile game development company, A Thinking Ape. Natania Mathany is the Head of People and Culture at A Thinking Ape and she sat down with me to talk about employee retention and how it relates to company culture and community.
YS: Thank you so much for joining us on the show today, Natania.
Natania Mathany: My pleasure! Thank you for having me.
YS: How’s your day going so far?
NM: I have nothing to complain about. It’s beautiful outside.
YS: Yes it is. It’s almost like summer time. So, you work at the mobile game development company, A Thinking Ape. First of all, can you just tell me a little bit more about what the company is all about?
NM: Sure, I’d be happy to. So, A Thinking Ape is a mobile game development company. We make social mobile games that are free to download on iTunes and the Google Play store, and our mission is to build communities, and we do that through the social aspect and accessibility of our games. We are located in Vancouver, we have around 70 employees and looking to increase our team by about 30% this year, so excited about that. But yeah, in a nutshell, right now we make games that are really fun and [that] hopefully a lot of people all over the world can enjoy.
YS: That’s really cool! What kind of games do you guys create? Are they action or are they problem solving, or…
NM: Yeah, we have a few different genres, but our most recent game that we launched at the end of 2017 is a kingdom builder game. We call it A Kingdom Builder for Everyone, so, a little bit of strategy, a little bit of dry humor in there, but yeah, the type of game that’s most popular right now is our Kingdoms of Heckfire game, which is more of a strategy kingdom builder-type game.
YS: Awesome! That sounds really cool. So, I know you are Head of People and Culture at A Thinking Ape. What kind of responsibilities does that role entail?
NM: Yes, so I lead, as you said, our People and Culture team. We care really deeply about finding the best people externally to build a really connected internal community. I work really closely with our CEO, who’s also our co-founder, and our senior leadership team to ensure that our business strategy aligns with our people strategy, so that encompasses everything from our employer branding, recruitment and talent acquisition, onboarding, training and development, and really the entire employee experience. So, benefits to wellness initiatives, all those types of things fall into my wheelhouse.
YS: A lot of times when people are looking for a job, they’re looking for a company that has a good culture. And oftentimes, this can mean beer on tap and ping pong table. So, what do you think really makes a good culture?
NM: Yes, I definitely hear those types of comments a lot. Culture, to me, is about people living the values of the organization. It’s how the company shows up every day and the people who make it up inside.
Culture to me isn’t about the perks, the beer, and the ping pong. It’s about the environment that the company creates for its employees to show up every day being their best self, living and exemplifying the values of the organization, and really supporting each other to be better. So yeah, to me, those things are just perks and they’re just things, but, really, culture is about the people and it’s an organic thing, it can change over time, but it’s really unique to every organization based on the individuals that they have there and the unique atmosphere that they’re creating.
YS: Absolutely, and A Thinking Ape was actually named Canada’s most admired corporate culture winner last year in 2018, which is really wonderful. So, what defines your company culture and why do you think it’s been considered to be so admirable?
NM: Well, thank you for the shout out, that was a proud accomplishment for us over here. It really comes down to our core values and our approach to leadership. So, we have four values: one of them being Ownership, another one being Having Wonderful Arguments, third one being Best Ideas Win, and fourth, Keep Growing. And so, we use these values as the lens and the filter for our decisions. We give people a lot of trust and ownership over their work, we encourage our teams to engage wonderful arguments or healthy debate. You know, we really like to expose our blind spots and talk about failures, it’s common practice here that we do post-mortems on things that went wrong and didn’t work so that we can use it as a learning tool for our people to grow, which is actually, I guess, a great segue to our Keep Growing value. So, we believe and encourage growth across the organization on a company, team, and individual level.
But all of this really started with the commitment from our founders to placing a lot of emphasis and [putting] resources into carrying out and building and sustaining an awesome culture. Their commitment to that has been key to our success, so I strongly believe that if you have buy-in from your leadership team on the importance of culture and how that aligns to your business strategy, that’s going to make you really successful, and that’s the type of environment we’ve been able to cultivate here and I think has really contributed to our success.
YS: That’s wonderful. Yeah, because you spend so much time at your job and it’s so important to be in an environment that’s a great place to work. And I also really love the fact that you guys place a lot of emphasis on failure because, you know, everybody is human and that’s part of becoming successful – acknowledging failure and growing from it, and having those conversations to move forward and to get better. Yeah, I really love that.
NM: Yeah, it’s definitely uncomfortable for some people when they first start, but I think they feel that they are able to, their rate of self-improvement increases tremendously when they’re brought in to this type of environment.
YS: For sure, yes, it’s about being looking at yourself and being honest and taking responsibility – which is actually one of our core values too here at Outback, Being Honest.
So one thing that I was looking forward to talking to you about today was that there seems to be a very interesting connection there when it comes to in-game community and the emphasis that your team places on their in-office community, because a big thing that A Thinking Ape does in their game is build chat features within them. I wanted to ask you, do you think that the importance company culture has at A Thinking Ape is reflected in the work that you do?
NM: Yes, absolutely! As I mentioned earlier, our mission is about building communities and most immediately, those are the player communities in our games. So as you mentioned, you know, we have this chat platform within our games and it’s really fascinating to see the emergent social behaviors that arise from these unique connections and that’s really at the core why we’re in business in the first place was because our founders were really fascinated by these emergent social behaviors and the things that happen when people found each other in these, you know, in these worlds, and we’ve had amazing things happened.
We’ve had people who met in-game who have gotten married, had people who never met in real life and planned trips to Disneyland together. We’ve had people rally together to help out a clan member, who was in need during a natural disaster time period, so, fundraising efforts. So, there’s been some amazing things that have happened, and I personally love our mission because I feel like it’s a great way for us to demonstrate community building in so many ways. So, we can look at our products and see the cool things that are happening within our game and then we can look inward in our organization, we can mirror and match the cultural initiatives that we are doing to how it’s helping to build and foster our internal community.
So, when we talk about external community, we talk about our player community, we talk about the mobile games industry community that we’re involved in, we talk about the BC [British Columbia] tech ecosystem community that we’re involved in, we talk about our student community that we’re involved in because we also have a really robust co-op program here. And then we talk about our internal community which is our employees and our work force. So, our employees see the direct impact that they have on our player communities and we work really hard to align our goals so that we’re all working towards the same outcome. And a lot of that has influence over our products but also the environment that we’re rallying together and creating here internally.
YS: That’s really cool. It’s all about that human connection.
NM: Exactly! Absolutely!
YS: So now, how much does community and company culture matter when it comes to something like employee retention?
NM: I think it’s really important. People want to be a part of a community where they can help each other, they learn from each other and are part of something bigger than just themselves. And just like you said, it’s about that human connection piece, so, it’s creating an environment where people feel they can be authentic and they could be true to who they are and they can be learning and growing, and I think if you can build those types of practices within your company culture, it definitely has a direct impact on retention.
YS: Absolutely. So, from what you’ve seen in your experience, what do you think ultimately triumphs at a company: somebody who’s more of a culture fit or somebody who is more overpoweringly a subject matter expert?
NM: Yes, tough question. I think it really depends on the organization. In my experience, usually the subject matter expert. But, a lot of culture-focused companies, ATA being one of them, are emphasizing that a high performer needs to be balanced in both those areas. So, there needs to be a culture fit, or as we call [it], a culture add, and domain knowledge are equally important. And, in fact, if someone doesn’t add to your culture, that person could be more detrimental with the organization than someone who’s lacking in skill. So, yes, I think that there’s probably different organizations where both of those types can thrive, but ideally, in my opinion, it’s not one or the other but you’re finding the balance between those two types for peak performance.
YS: Absolutely. Yeah, that makes sense. So now, do you have any tried and true strategies – or are there any tried and true strategies – for building culture that employees love and that prospective employees might even want to seek out?
NM: You know, I think it’s really important that – you definitely need to survey your people and take action on what they have to say. You need to be agile with your people practices and always be willing to iterate with them based on the needs of the business and how your workforce is changing. You need to be willing to question everything and not get stuck on doing things…just because, you know, that’s the way we’ve always done it. You got to be flexible to challenging the status quo, so that’s definitely one thing that’s worked really well for us.
Secondly is committing to branding. You know, we actually just added to our People and Culture team an employer brand role, and branding is really important, so placing emphasis on this and it ties into your recruiting piece, it ties in your engagement strategy and that’s, you know, going to be a really big, big area that’s going to attract prospective employees. If you don’t focus on your branding, prospective employees might never even hear about you.
It’s all about creating a space, in my opinion, based on trust and ownership, flexibility, and vulnerability. So, by creating a safe space for people can feel they have control over their work, and their growth paths, and that they can make mistakes without fear of retribution and they’re going to be rewarded for giving you feedback, that creates a really interesting and challenging environment for people. So yeah, those are kind of some of the top things that come to mind for me and that we’ve been working towards doing here that have contributed to our success.
YS: Yeah, you know, it seems like it just really always goes back to core values, right? Like having values that you live and breathe and work by that just inform everything that you do at a company. It’s that guiding light, right?
NM: I like to think so, yes.
YS: How do you think tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Yelp!, who are all quite known for their emphasis on company culture as well, how have they change the landscape when it comes to culture?
NM: Well, they’ve raised the bar in terms of expectations for talent, that’s for sure. And you know, talent has so much choice today and options in the market, that it puts a lot of pressure on that small-to-medium size businesses like A Thinking Ape.
However, they offer so many perks as ways to make it easier for employees to stay at work, that it just allows the smaller companies to focus on the work we do and put more emphasis on the impact that our employees are going to have on our products. And so, for us and our players and communities and how they’re going to learn and be challenged every day. Like, we know that our workforce cares more about their career development, autonomy, and flexibility over unlimited perks and time off and food, so we choose to focus on that. So again, I think, you know, it’s definitely really competitive out there and those large companies are offering so much that it can be very enticing, but for us, we try and focus more on what are the benefits that you’re going to gain as an individual, in your career, working for a small-to-medium sized organization and the impact that you’re going to have every day on the people that you’re connecting with, both internally and in the work that you do and your products. Does that answer your question?
YS: Absolutely. I would think working within a smaller company, the benefits that a smaller company would have, I feel like, almost reach those who are getting those benefits in a more direct and impactful way, if that makes sense. It kind of reaches you quicker and more personally, in a sense.
NM: Yeah, and I think those large organizations are very attractive to certain people because they want to work there because they want to work for that brand. But, turn over at those organizations is larger and people don’t last at those organizations as long, you know, they work there, they put in their time so that they can get that label on their resume and then they may move on. And of course, I am generalizing a little bit there but, I think we are, the small-to-medium size companies are appealing to a particular type of candidate.
I mean, we hear this all the time from software development engineers who are interviewing with us who are leaving the big giants for exactly that reason. They seek us out because they don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy and they’re not so interested in all of the unlimited perks, but they care more about the work and impact that they’re going to have. So, we’re not really concerned about, you know, comparing ourselves to the big giants because we know we’re different and we know we have a, basically, different value proposition and we stick to that and we know what that is and that’s what we promote.
YS: Absolutely. And you guys are doing great things.
NM: Thank you.
YS: Awesome. Well, this was so great Natania, thank you so much again for taking the time to chat with us and thank you for your wonderful insight. We really appreciate it.
NM: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
YS: And that’s it for this episode of Outback Talks. Thank you so much again to Natania for taking the time to be on our show today, and thank you for listening.
Outback Team Building & Training helps organizations across North America build relationships through memorable team building, training, and consulting experiences, and our team has been recommended by over 14,000 corporate groups in the United States and Canada. For more expert advice on employee engagement, visit the Downloadable Resources section of our website at outbackteambuilding.com to take a look at our free guides or get in touch with one of our Employee Engagement Consultants. And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Spotify, iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher. Until next time! This is Outback Talks: The Employee Engagement Podcast.