Building a Strong Company Culture: Think Tribal

Posted on January 23, 2020

By Joanna Kulesa

Tribe.

It’s a word that goes all the way back to Middle English, encapsulating in just five letters and one syllable the powerful bond of shared beliefs, goals, customs, and motivations that unites like-minded humans. 

“Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years,” the author Sebastian Junger wrote, “and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species.”

Offleash client Mona Sabet ⎯ chief corporate strategy officer at UserTesting ⎯ has thought extensively about the advantages of small, cohesive teams, or “mini-tribes” as she calls them, in business. 

Mini-tribes can become “an extended family whose members are deeply committed to the job at hand and to each other,” she wrote recently in Fast Company, “and build and maintain a long-lasting, critical level of empathy and shared purpose that brings out maximal performance.”

The article resonated with me because we have intentionally cultivated the same smaller-is-better mindset at Offleash. 

The numbers aren’t precisely identical ⎯ Mona contends that 15 people or fewer is the ideal mini-tribe size; our Offleash team typically stands at 20-25 people. 

Smaller groups actually help companies think big. And they’re effective for organizations of all sizes, if, as British anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar postulated in the early 90s, you think of each tribe as a concentric circle within the larger business. The key point is that people work better together and produce superior work if they feel highly connected with one another within a close-knit unit. 

I see these tribal dynamics with our crew: intense camaraderie, a common sense of mission, a spirit of having each other’s backs despite what can be very stressful jobs, a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

I’ve seen this result in a scrappy commitment to the work and to each other. And I know our clients pick up on the vibe.

Larger agencies can benefit from mini-tribes within their organizations to rally around specific initiatives and to continue to foster strong cultures as they grow. 

“Grow or die” makes perfect sense for most of the tech companies we work with, but our own mission is to maintain what we feel is our right size and to strive to be the best boutique agency out there, building in value and expertise at every step. 

My gut has always told me this is a better strategy for us than to cross an employee number line and risk losing the values of trust, togetherness, and dedication to each other that make us a tribe.

As Mona Sabet observed in Fast Company about tribal thinking in business, “The payoff in performance, productivity, morale, and retention is incalculable.”

Joanna Kulesa has been building successful agencies in Silicon Valley for 20 years.  Her passion for outstanding client service is matched by her dedication to agency employees—reflected in its naming by Fortune as a Best Place to work for Camaraderie and a Best Place to Work for Women. Contact Joanna at joanna@offleashpr.com