Some notes on culture
Culture is one of those traditionally hazy business concepts that everyone thinks is important, yet no one can define. Or, if they can define it, the definition sheds almost no light on what to do tactically to build culture in a company.
This morning, I sat in on a brief panel discussion that had a few choice nuggets on culture. Combined with a few of my own observations, this represents a decent subset of what I deem to be tactical when it comes to setting culture in a startup organization:
Culture is how people decide what to do in the absence of explicit instruction.
When you have 4 founders around a dinner table, it’s relatively easy to discuss difficult topics and come to a decision point. When you have 400 employees, that’s impossible. Eventually, someone in your company is going to make a critical decision without consulting you, and you want her to do so in a way that represents your company’s values. The goal is that she knows which decision to make because she refers to strong, pervasive cultural norms.
Your employees learn culture in the first few months, and then it sticks.
Should I forward this email with cat pictures to the list-serv? Should I invite my manager to this meeting? People ask themselves these questions a lot when they start a new job. They find the right answer by looking towards their colleagues. After that point, they assume that’s “the way things are done” and go on autopilot.
As such, the main cultural decisions (“No, we don’t send out time wasting emails” or “Only invite your manager if a resource allocation decision needs to be made”) are decided in the first few months after you hire an employee, so it’s important to enforce them early and often.
Put all decisions in the context of the mission. This reinforces culture.
Any time you make a decision that has some exposure in the company, tie your justification explicitly to the mission of the company. Use these opportunities to communicate and reinforce the message, and in doing so you will show practical applications of the company’s culture.
Culture means nothing if it doesn’t influence hiring, promotions, and terminations.
Reed Hastings likes to point out that the values of Enron were Integrity, Communication, Respect, and Excellence. Were these traits really valued? Of course not. A culture is only authentic if managers take action (read: hire, promote, or fire) on the basis of that culture. A lot of people should have been fired at Enron if those were the true values of the company.
All hands meetings are 100% necessary and should be made at least weekly.
Github holds a “all hands” meeting each week it calls “Beer O’Clock” where it does at least 3 things. First, the CEO introduces each new hire and describes what she is working on. This helps the employees find one and other in the organization and set the expectation of an eventual work product from that person.
Second, he talks about what was shipped that week, and occasionally does a demo. That shows employees that shipping product is a key value of the company.
Finally, he talks about the general state of the company and reinforces his philosophy on what he is building, again taking the time explicitly reinforce culture.
Develop metrics for culture, like everything else.
A good culture is attractive. People want their friends to work at their company if they love their company and its culture. Make it easy for employees to bring their friends into the fold, and then track how often they do this. It’s a great example of a metric that shows positive cultural growth.
Another good one is how often you, the CEO, get called out for violating the company’s values. The comfort an employee must have to do this shows how pervasive culture must be.
Never compete on compensation with larger companies.
If you’re the highest bidder, as a startup, you’re probably not sending the right message to a new candidate. The message you are sending is that your culture is about extracting financial value, which may not be the one you want to promote.
Furthermore, you should assume that everyone will eventually know what everyone else makes. Paying people in similar roles drastically different salaries due to different hiring situations can engender resentment.
Don’t define culture in negatives.
Google is famous for “Don’t be evil.” Atlassian has “Don’t f*&% the customer.” These look great on T-shirts, but when it comes down to action it doesn’t help with edge cases. What about sort’ve being evil? Or sort’ve f*&%ing the customer? I mean, charging them more for additional services if they don’t notice isn’t really evil, is it?
Instead, define culture in positives. Atlassian has another core value that I like better: “Be the change you seek.” That tells me that, when I can’t get others to do something in the organization, it’s my responsibility to get it done myself.
Finally, whatever culture you create, optimize it for happiness.
Happy employees stay at your company, and they often bring others into the fold.
If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comment section below!