The Challenges and Successes of Building Company Culture

The five core values on which Affimed stands

by Adi Hoess, CEO

People who work in the life sciences are explorers. We are driven to make progress and create solutions that positively impact people’s lives in the most powerful of ways. To succeed in our endeavor, we seek to cultivate a culture within Affimed that encourages diversity of thought, and to do that, we must do more than just talk the talk. For us, culture is not a buzzword—it is foundational. In essence, it is part of our DNA.

Culture starts with leadership and must be embraced by all levels of an organization. Implementing culture during rapid growth and a global pandemic presents certain challenges, but even without COVID, bringing together ideas from different backgrounds and experiences often involves serious growing pains. Through these growing pains, however, companies can become stronger, more resilient, and more competitive. To take culture from being merely a buzzword to a true expression of who a company is, values and aligning behaviors need to resonate from within.

To truly cultivate a dynamic company culture, the leadership at Affimed enlisted a team of employees with diverse backgrounds and experiences to be intimately involved in the process of shaping our culture and vision. These employees became ambassadors—each championing a core value—and then were tasked with creating engagement around it. Values were discussed and debated, and feedback was encouraged. High standards and goals were set, which included building in an emotional connection to each value. This helped to bring it from the conceptual to the personal, creating engagement in the form of a game or activity to deliver the needed connection.

Critical to the initiative, each ambassador worked with a C-level manager to define and build out the value (something that each of us will describe in subsequent articles):

TEAMGEIST: Teamgeist is the German word for “team spirit.” As the CEO for Affimed, my passion around this value underlies all that I do. This value is expressed by being united and bound by a common goal and being committed to working together and supporting each other with loyalty and enthusiasm.

PEOPLE: Led by our CBO, Denise Mueller, people means encouraging and embracing diversity of thought, background, and culture, and acknowledging everyone as a valuable contributor.

PERFORMANCE: Led by COO Wolfgang Fischer and CFO Angus Smith, performance is exemplified by a thoughtful and collaborative approach to our strategy with a focus on delivering exceptional results.

PASSION: Led by CSO Arndt Schottelius, passion connects us with patients and the real-life benefits and solutions we are committed to delivering. It is the heart and soul behind our mission, and we will persist until patients’ lives are no longer derailed by cancer.

INNOVATION: Led by CMO Andreas Harstrick, innovation is the courage to be imaginative and the conviction that adaptation is part of delivering life-changing medicines.

An inspiring list, to say the least; yet last year created unique challenges to the implementation and activities around some of these values in no small part. However, because of our pre-COVID efforts toward culture building, we have been able to ride the waves of growth and weather the storm of uncertainty more successfully than not.

Our success began by taking the abstract concept of Teamgeist and making it tangible in a company-wide event last year that involved activities centered around “intelligence” games. These were specifically designed activities that reinforced the qualities and outcomes of successfully using the attributes of Teamgeist.

By creating a game out of it, the value became visible in its practice and emotional in its engagement. Then, after the half-day event, our families were invited to join us in food and fun, allowing us to connect even more and deepen our emotional engagement with each other, our personal lives, and the work we do. This emotional engagement is necessary to successful culture-building and was intentional and immensely rewarding. Culture-building without it leads to empty platitudes. We saw the fruits of our efforts when COVID-19 hit, and we were challenged to safeguard our employees in the face of many unknowns. During those early months, Teamgeist allowed our employees to feel confident when they returned to the lab. It fostered openness to the challenges that were being confronted so that we could create solutions that made everyone feel more comfortable.

Intrinsic to Teamgeist is the understanding that everyone plays a critical role, yet sometimes, it is easy for people to get overlooked. Because of this, we created the Teamgeist Award to honor the silent heroes who put in a little extra and make things a little easier for everyone. The award is nominated, discussed, and shared.

Doing this work of building culture around common values can be, at its best, fun and connecting—and at its worst, stressful and deflating. Culture-building should be supportive, not exhausting. But it should be continuous. Continuity elicits consistency, which leads to trust. That trust creates a feeling of safety for authentic feedback to be shared meaningfully. And authenticity is critical for learning and improving.

It also is essential to measure the bandwidth of your employees before implementing new activities, however positive. Due to Affimed’s exciting growth, we had to temper our drive around culture-building, yet paradoxically, it allowed us to model and reinforce the values of listening and responding, which are a part of People and Teamgeist. Essentially, we were presented with an unexpected opportunity to embody and reflect important values in a meaningful and timely way. By doing the early values work, companies can turn challenges into opportunities.

Looking back over the hurdles that last year presented, Affimed’s accomplishments around culture-building were humble yet real and foundational. We weathered and are weathering the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. And from a business standpoint, we are strong. Our strength is a ringing endorsement for the early start on culture-building. It is never too early to start this work, for it is the heart and soul of company-building. When you start there, you can go anywhere and navigate anything.