Marie Kölle, is the director of happiness at Critical TechWorks, in Portugal, actively engaged in thinking and creating the company culture that builds on trust and autonomy.


(Marta Pinto) Hello everyone, welcome to the Culture Code Podcast. Today we have as our guest, Marie Kölle. She is the director of happiness at BMW’s daughter company Critical TechWorks a joint venture company of BMW and Critical Software which is developing the next generation of software systems for the BMW Group’s future driving machines. She was born in Germany, but it’s in Portugal where she is now and has been engaged in thinking and creating the company culture of CTW, for a little over 2 years. She will share more about that during this podcast. Marie, thank you so much for joining, we are happy to have you in the podcast.

(Marie Kölle) Thank you so much as well for the invite.

(Marta) So Marie, if you had to explain to a 10 year old, what you do for your work as director of happiness. What would you tell him or her?

(Marie) It’s a good question. I think the very basis of this is that I would say that I help people to feel good about how they spend their time. So in the end, work is a way on where we go and spend our time. For a 10 year old I would say, like the feeling you have after the day at school where the teacher was proud of you, or your friends and you invented a fun game and you played all day and then you cannot wait to get home and tell your parents about the great day that you had. That’s kind of what I do in my job, so I help adults, basically, to feel the same way when they come from work. That they come home and they really want to tell others how great the day was.

(Marta) Is with adults more challenging, you think?

(Marie) Not necessarily because I think adults have more opportunities, more variety to choose from. I would say it’s more difficult because adulte maybe lose their kind of importance that they want to have fun, and they feel more obliged to meet responsibilities, instead of seeing it as a responsibility to be happy.

(Luis) uau! How did your story of life come across this idea of happiness at work? How did it happen and what were the challenges behind that?

(Marie) I think I always had that feeling that i wanted to have a special job…more in a sense that I wanted to do something meaningful for society. I wanted to have a work with a high level of autonomy and independence already from the beginning of my career. So I think in the end it was kind of my own stubbornness that made me end up in this field…. I think I could of also, you know, finishing university…so i did a typical academic path doing a bachelor’s degree, then a masters degree with a lot of internships in between, and in the end I could have went for a career basically doing a lot of assessment tests and followed by climbing the hierarchical ladder of some company. But I was never really impressed by any brand name, or let’s say, aspiring to work for the big consultancies. What I really cared about was that I wanted to work for a place where people are interacting with each other in a nice way, and I was always very interested in how will I be treated in that environment I will be getting in. What will be the environment like? What will be the working conditions? And most importantly what will be the impact  that I am creating in that job. So that always meant more to me than having any kind of specific company name on my CV.

(Marta) You were talking about having this idea that when we work, you wanted to be treated well, but you also had experiences where people told you ‘we are not going to be friends here, so hold on ok!’ 

(Marie) Yes!

(Marta What are the obvious things when we think about work culture?

(Marie) I would say the most obvious things are…when we are thinking of a company mission for example, or what are the company values? So that is usually promoted by events you have internally, that bring people together and promote the identification of people with thoses company values, or that company mission. So for me that is more the obvious. An example for that would be anything related to employee engagement, such as for example, flexible working hours or you have once a week a lunch with the CEO, or you’re celebrating every employee’s birthday in a special way, you name it. So all those kinds of examples is for me more the obvious working culture.

What goes beyond the obvious and where it gets interesting for me is everything related with opportunities that people have in the company to really discover their own growth and development. So that’s basically the on top opportunities that go beyond any compensations or benefits. For example, if you have mental health programs, or the way that the company really takes on the role of caretaker of its employees and not just someone who gives them a job and a salary. And promotes proximity, practicing good values, but that on top really takes on that responsibility of seeing that the people spend so much time of their life in the company, so the company has a huge potential to also create an impact in their lives, and turning it into something more positively maybe then the people would be able to do by themselves. So what I mean by that is having really great support system for the different life circumstances that we all go through, in the best way possible. For example, I think what we learned in this pandemic is that we reduced the working hours of people who have children in homeschooling, because of course, we don’t want people to feel guilty because it’s impossible to work eight hours a day while you have a seven year old at home who is in the process of learning how to write and to read, and you are the responsible parent that has to make sure that they actually attend their homeschooling classes and do their exercises. So in order to have that fit, and the company seeing that need that the employees have to basically now have a double role, something that goes on top of that…and that’s for me the non obvious of the working culture. The really being a good caretaker for the employee. What I’m especially passionate about is having a big portfolio of activities that an employee can choose from. So, whatever he or she sees fit for his or her own development, like for example, health or professional training, coaching activities, even mental health services that you have for free… or volunteering activities, or you’re very passionate about some social project and you would like to align that with your work life. You can use that to acquiring new skills and even on social skills, and then of course all the investment a company does in acquiring new technical skills and developing who you are as a professional. All of that for me is really what is the non obvious working culture. So having the company doing that role of someone who believes in his employees and wants to support them in whatever they need.

(Marta) Yes, that’s really beautiful because it’s kind of both ways. The less obvious is taking care of. For sure that has lots of return, because people will for sure feel more involved with the purpose of getting involved in taking care of the company as well.

(Marie) Definitely, definitely

(Luis Simões) You talked about celebration, briefly. But one thing that can talk a lot about a culture of a company is also how failure and success as well is addressed. If you would have to describe how it is at Critical TechWorks, how would you say is the way to address these two topics?

(Marie)I would say that failure and success are equally important. I would say the most important thing is to take fear away from failure. It is so present in our society. I don’t know…we still all are really afraid to admit our mistakes. Whereas it is great to fail, and we also have to accept that we’ll never stop failing in our lives, specially in our professional environment and specially nowadays where changes are happening so quickly, and ten new developments every day…and you cannot be always up to date. You give your best and you try, and you make mistakes and then you correct them. And that’s kind of the attitude I think that also to be promoted by companies, and it is also what we do at Critical TechWorks. It sound a bit like a cliché I would say, but it’s actually true that excellence is also created if we know what doesn’t work and we only try for improving things if we see where we don’t produce sufficient efforts. So, especially at the beginning of their career, and we have a lot of young people in our company, they have the tendency to pretend that they are perfect workers already, even though they just went out of graduate school. Because tey are so afraid of being seen as the young person who is still …doesn’t have a lot of working experience. So we have the tendency to pretend to have everything under control, and which is great because we want to give and show our best. But let’s be honest, a lot of people know that feeling when you have a meeting and people are discussing and you really don’t know what they are talking about and you just go along with it. And ten after the meeting you go to google and google some words you never heard before so you can keep up. And tings shouldn’t be like that. People should feel confident to in the meeting say ‘sorry, I have no idea what you are talking about at the moment…never worked with this, and I’m still at the beginning of my career’… and no one ever minds explaining. It’s like that we have that fear of admitting failure, or admit to be seen as a failure, whereas it is actually the opposite. I think people appreciate that people are really authentic and transparent about his or hers capabilities. And that’s what is really important. We really have to give people the security in admitting their limitations and to make it normal to say ‘sounds like a great idea, but to be honest I’ve never worked with this tool. I will investigate it and talk with some people who can help me with that and then I will get back to you.’ Even the CEO of the company has to fail and has to admit also his failures, because no one has a handbook on how to do a perfect job, usually, we have experience and we have knowledge we acquire, and the more we are open to leave some room for others to have a better solution than us. The better we will be able to create a high quality outcome. So if everyone normalizes failure, we can really create room for improvement for success and I would say the most important thing is to give recognition to it. There is a huge danger of having people creating great success stories and not being recognised for it, and that will basically create a much worse impact, I think, than receiving, for example, negative feedback as the lack of receiving positive feedback. It’s not fun to invest a lot of effort to achieve something that is important to us or the company and then no one is recognizing it. The next people will then give less effort and they have no blame in that. It’s very human and natural to be motivated by recognition. So I think that is something we really need to practice wherever we can. Celebrate success as much as possible.

(Marta) And there is a lot of collaboration in teams and across teams for that success and for those failures to happen in a supported way?

(Marie) I would say so. I hope so. We have for example, a lot of mechanisms to give recognition to people. We have weekly events like all company wide events with management, board, with everyone involved in the company. There is always this phase where we do shout-outs and give recognitions for. So I ask, as happiness manager ‘Who wants to give a shout-out? Who wants to do a recognition?” and people step forward and people get a shout-out for various things like, for example, people who will change the project and they want to say thank you to the team who they have been working with and say it was a great time working with each other….or there was a delivery of a project for example, and a project fase that came to an end and people want to give a shout out for that. Various circumstances. And everyone is then applauding. To have that moment and to do that moment of recognition, even if people who sometimes do videos or recordings…people get really creative on how they want to share the recognition moments. 

In general for collaborations, to share their failures, to be able to learn from each other’s mistakes. We also have a lot of events in relation to that. We have COP meetings of all our scrum masters, where they get together and they share what is working well, and the way that they were implementing scrum, and what are somethings that they have difficulties with and they find solutions with each other. We also have trained facilitators, or people in the company that take on that role of a facilitator and they help each other to find solutions to a goal or objective that they still haven’t met. So we kind of have peer coaching among employees a lot. And then we have knowledge sharing events, we call this knowledge networking where people present their projects and current challenges that they are faced with in their project. and what happens then is that sometimes there is another team or person who is attending those events who already in his project passed through a similar situation and then they meet up afterwards. We kind of try to have a lot of dialogue about what is happening and that really helps. Or we create zen projects for people who need to learn more skills. Some people wanted to learn more on how to develop with Flatter, and they are working on a software on how we will book our ping pong tables and see who is the best player in the company, just like a fun project to learn basically, to prevent to make mistakes in that project and learn to create a higher quality with those changes.

(Luis) So I was curious because there is all these programs that you talked about, to help with happiness and for the teams to work together and to work better. So how does that fit, that from one side you have that you are trying to create happiness within the organisation and at the same time probably conflict arises…how do these two things connect together?

(Marie) Actually very well I would say. My job is not for people to be perfect and be happy in a sense that they don’t have bad days at work. But that they can be authentic about how their work has been going, and conflict is a part of that. Conflict is actually very important because it creates commitment to what we are doing. If I have a disagreement with you and we get into a meeting and we have a big discussion about that, and then in the end arrive to a calm solution. Then we will have a different commitment to it rather than me just staying quite and not agreeing and then I’ll go with your decision but I will never really have that feeling of being committed to because it was never my decision in the first place. So if it fails it’s not my problem because it was you who took that decision. Do you know what I’m meaning?

(Marta) If you had a couple of stories to select that are about what make you most proud about your company culture, work culture, what would they be?

(Marie) There are a lot of topics.I think I am most happy when people come up with initiatives by themselves, that no one told them to do so. In general I think I am very happy about our company culture because it feels like nothing is really dependent on a single person. And I very much like that idea. I like the idea of having a healthy system that is not based on one charismatic person that is able to bring everyone together and create a great environment. But it’s the whole system that has to be healthy and supporting basically the whole happiness strategy. Everyone could come in and do someone else’s job because the system itself is so strong and stable, so what I mean is the structures of having flat hierarchies and having a lot of dialogue and how we take care of people. Everyone is really aligned in terms of our working culture, so we actually achieved in a short amount of time, to really have a good understanding of what our company culture is very tangible. People know exactly how they can participate and what everyone’s responsibility in making their contribution to the company culture. I don’t have the feeling that there are any hidden agendas, and that’s for the best thing. And even for myself, so if I wouldn’t be able to work for a year and someone would need to do my job, it would depend only on me for people to stay happy at Critical TechWorks, and that’s for me the big success. That everyone is so aligned and knows how they can be contributing.

(Marta) Yes, being aligned with the company values is so important for all the people that work at a company. Could you share a story or some stories of how you got to define the values that everyone identifies with.

(Marie) There are a lot of stories about what people did. We collect some of them. When we decided what our culture book is, so what are the values of Critical Techworks? We didn’t want to have the management to decide that will be our five values, take them and put them in practice. We wanted to have the whole company together to define them. So we did a lot of workshops, where we invited a big amount of our employees…and all of them shared a different story of what our culture means to them. And then all the other participants would write on a post-it what they would think could be the title, the value, or the title of that story. And then we did the whole voting on what are the most recurring ones, the most popular ones. So our values are based on true stories lived in the company. There were some really beautiful ones, for example, that a colleague that was rather shy, and at the beginning of his career he didn’t really know…a typical example of not wanting to do anything wrong and rather letting the more older ans experienced people decide and then just go along with it. He wouldn’t too much raise his opinion, and due to spending time with….and that also why i am a fan of playing board games and things like that, because it translates to the quality of the product…So he started to playing chess and Uno with his team members, and because he was then out of the work context, and didn’t have anything to do with the project they were working on, he actually grew in confidence towards his colleagues. He himself would realize that he would be much more open to participate in team discussions and raise his opinion without being afraid of failure. That’s one example of that…Because he already failed in the board games so he knows ‘it doesn’t hurt me to be the one who loses’. So that really helps

Also there were a lot of examples on trust. So trust is also one of the big values we have at Critical TechWorks. And there was another example where we had a colleague and his wife was unemployed at the time when he started in the company, and he came to the Human Resources company, and he wanted to bring some proof about the unemployment of his wife, and the human resources said ‘yes, but you already told me, I have trust in you that you tell me the truth’…and he was like ‘ah…I was never treated with so much trust that they didn’t want to have any physical proof, because they expect me to lie about our financial situation for the taxation process’. I think these are all little examples but in people’s lives they really make a difference, to be treated as adults and as trustworthy people. On the top of my head those are some of the examples I can share.

(Luis) Uau! Thank you so much for the examples and for us to be able to peek a little bit inside into what the culture of Critical Techworks is, and how you deal with the day-to-day, because I think that is the most important thing to understanding the culture of a company. It’s those examples, those little things. And I think it will be quite inspiring for all of us to see and organisation as big as Critical TechWorks is right now, believing so much in trust and giving autonomy for people to solve the problems, talk with each other and come with the initiatives, like you said. I think it’s very inspiring and I think can be an example for a lot of other organisations listening to us. So thank you so much again for sharing. It was a pleasure to be with you today.

(Marie) Thank you also very much Marta and Luis for having me. I’m excited to listen to the other people who will come to the next episodes.

(Marta) Thank you so much.