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A Company Proud to Be Part Of

Interview with Sharon Parker-Lines, Centre Director, Oxford Innovation


I was really inspired to hear Sharon talk at the Business Bio event in Oxford last year and so I asked for an interview to find out more.


With a background in publishing it was quite a shift moving to Oxford Innovation (OI), but Sharon knew from the word go that this was the move she wanted to make. Enjoying her new position, she confirmed that every bit of her experience with OI, including the recruitment process, reflected the ethos of the company that she is so proud to be part of.


What was it like when you started?

I was given the tools and expected to get on with it! I felt empowered to run the centre how I felt best and was trusted to be given complete control. The incredible culture at Oxford Innovation was apparent from the interview and induction process and I took this to heart into my role. I really felt that my job was to invigorate and excite the team around me, ensuring they felt as part of the wider centre network and central teams as I already did.


What inspires you most about working for Oxford Innovation

I can honestly say that I have been overwhelmed with the supportive and collaborative ethos that runs throughout the company. No mean feat when you consider there are over 120 employees located in 26 centres across the UK.


There is a saying ‘there’s a difference between someone who will help you in their free time, versus someone who will free up their time to help you’. OI is full of people who instinctively do the latter.


In any organisation good communication is key, and as such there is a monthly call from our MD, Jo Stevens, in which she shares details on company performance, new opportunities and recommendations around best practice. For the day-to-day, we have our own intranet, on which we can learn about what our colleagues who are working in other locations and give recognition to those that have helped us with ‘buttons’. In addition to this, there are links to an Employee Assistance Program, and a section dedicated to employee wellbeing.


In your talk at the Business Bio Event, you talked about some of the challenges facing a company when experiencing rapid growth, especially focusing on how company culture can often be overlooked.

During periods of rapid growth, it is often assumed that a company culture will continue to operate in the same way. But the reality is that it becomes diluted and can shift depending on the changes taking place, and therefore what was successful no longer looks the same. Unless your employment process puts culture at the centre of your organisation, you potentially store up issues for further down the line.


What can be quick wins?

Your senior team should talk a lot about what the culture looks like; what you want to be known for, how you achieve it. It’s about being visible, the tone of voice used, the website, the whole process for an employee from their initial interview. It’s ok that not everyone will like your culture, and not everyone will want to work for you. Staying true to what you believe is what’s important.


Look at how your culture filters through every department in tangible ways, such as an interconnectivity and shared language. Every manager should be involved, and the messages need to be communicated clearly through internal and external marketing.


What support is useful for companies to develop and maintain a clear culture?

The success of an expanding company is limited by the number of hats people wear. HR and change management personnel are usually the last roles to be filled on the senior team. Take the role of HR for example, with their functional, legal and social responsibilities – it is huge. Companies need help to put the foundations in place and support those people helping others.


Companies also need support to help develop their communication systems which become critical as an organisation grows.


It is clear to me that talking openly and honestly at all levels of the organisation, as well as through the employee life cycle is key. Communication and meaningful, tangible values are critical to an organisation’s success.


Another company leading a culture revolution is Zappos in America. According to Silverstein, author of ‘Rocket: Eight Lessons to Secure Infinite Growth’,

“Recruits have to fit in socially, intellectually, and emotionally.”

To find the right employees, people no longer apply for specific roles but instead, they seek to become an ‘Insider’. Video cover letters, online chats and connections to others in their area of expertise within Zappos is just the first step to ensuring a cultural fit.


What applicants don’t know is that the bus driver who takes them to their interview is consulted about how respectful the passengers were, and if the feedback isn’t positive, the candidate doesn’t get the job, regardless of how successful they were otherwise. Richard Feloni from Business Insider (December 2015) explains that

“Being hired is just the first step. After four weeks of training and a week on the job, all new hires are offered payment for their time and a $2,000 bonus if they decide the company is not right for them.” 

In 2015, employees were also offered a severance package if they didn’t want to participate in the new company structure that dispensed of traditional manager roles and job titles. Silverstein summarises that,

“what the company is really looking for is employees who will become passionate cheerleaders for the Zappos brand.”


So, I invite you to ask yourself this: How seriously are you thinking about your culture? What are you doing to check how relevant, tangible and visible your values are? How likely are your employees to shout about your company for the right reasons? Culture doesn’t just happen. It takes time and effort. But, when we get people right, we get business right.


To find out more about creating a plan for developing your workplace culture with intention, get in touch.