The Culture Hype

Almost anything passes as definition of culture these days — more so in tech startups.

So, what’s the culture like in your company?

Oh, we have espresso machines, unlimited candy, free lunches, a couple of masseuse on standby — you name it! We embrace working remotely, enjoy unlimited vacations, and are entitled to 8-hours of sleep every night.

Oh, man. How I wish.

Silicon Valley has everyone talking a great deal about culture but do we really know what we’re talking about? More so, do we really know what kind of culture we want and do we know how to achieve it? My guess is we’ve drank the tech scene Kool-Aid long enough that we’ve already gotten lost into the triviality of things.

Great company culture stories are everywhere. Take Zappos’, Google’s, and maybe even Facebook’s as examples. Everyone tries to use these companies’ culture as their yardstick hoping that they, eventually, end up with something like theirs.

The problem lies in hope itself. You can’t just sit in your ivory tower reading book after book because it made Mark Zuckerberg’s A Year of Books list or because Business Insider told you so. You have to —cliché as it may sound — pull up your blue denim sleeves and do the grunt work. Sometimes, it takes courage and getting outside your comfort zone to build a great company culture.

Great being however you define it to be. Some dream of having a results-driven culture while some chase after openness and diversity. Whichever your definition of great is, you’ll have to put in a lot of work in the beginning to get to it.

“I have seen far too many people who upon recognizing today’s gap try very hard to determine what decision has to be made to close it. But today’s gap represents a failure of planning some time in the past.” — Andy Grove

I say in the beginning because culture is like a Play Doh compound. It’s very malleable coming out of the container but after some time, it’s gets much harder to mold. One website says Play-Doh that’s left out quickly dries up, hardens, and cracks, making it impossible to mold and play with. This also holds true with culture.

If you have a shitty culture, it has its reasons

Startups are rushing to become the next unicorn while at the same time trying to adopt a great company culture. This is a problem in and of itself because culture takes a backseat and is left to take form on its own — especially when you have overly excited investors expecting a huge payout.

Startups, more often than not and almost by default, start with a culture of hope and curiosity. But when focus shifts to something else — say, maximizing shareholder value or anything that zeroes in on returns instead of making the product or service better — well, you’re in for a shitty ride.

Most companies have missions and visions. It’s just that most of them are written in terrible corporate jargon which no one in the company understands. So if you didn’t take investor money or perhaps were allowed to actually fulfill your true mission and vision, make sure they’re written in a way everyone can easily follow.

A company’s mission and vision precedes its culture. And before you can get to a culture you oh-so desire, everyone must first know and understand what the company’s end-goal is.

Every employee should be asking themselves daily: is what I am about to do going to help the company achieve it’s end-goal? If the answer is yes, then by all means charge on! If it isn’t, all they have to do is take a step back and re-align themselves with the end-goal. This process, in turn, helps mold and shape the company’s culture. However, if they’re not sure what the end-goal is in the first place, then there is something terribly wrong.

A startup without a clear goal is a dangerous place to be in. People end up going through the motions, doing self-serving things when there’s no north star to help them navigate. Unexamined, this becomes the de facto culture and before you know it, inspiration dissipates, silos get built, growth stalls, revenue nosedives, and the company ultimately crumbles.

If you’ve been operating for a while and is starting to think your company’s culture isn’t where you’d like it to be, ask yourself: Are your teams aligned? Does everyone have a clear understanding of what the mission is? If the answer to both questions is no, then it’s time to reassess, rethink, and regroup everyone towards a clear vision while course-correcting company culture. This is the only way a company succeeds in the very end. Otherwise, you’re all just playing house.

Building a culture you can be proud of

Having a great company culture comes with great benefits. You get quality work done fast, retain your best people — even and especially in tough times — and lots of other good stuff. This is what every founder or owner of any business should aspire for. A culture that’s results-driven, bias towards action, and cultivates teamwork and openness. How does one get to this point?

Get all the details right very early on. Articulate your vision clearly and inject a Nordstrom-ish rule of using one’s best judgement in every decision.If you do both right, you don’t have to worry about how to build a successful business, setting a culture you yourself believe in, or hiring only the best people. These things will mostly be byproducts of getting all details of what you and your team does everyday to be excellent.

Be careful not to confuse your people with highfalutin details. Revenue can both be vague and misleading — just ask the vegan mayo guys. Give them something that really matters. But more importantly, something that they can relate to. And if kudos are given, let those it’s addressed to know and share it with everyone.

Encourage dissent by having people use the vision to challenge ideas from everyone in the company — including their immediate superiors. You want a culture like Bridgewater Associates where opinions — especially the critical ones — are brought to the table.

“No one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.” — Ray Dalio

Don’t sweep anything under the rug. If there are customers who hate your product or something about your service, let everyone in the company know as well. Let the people responsible for the defect take action and fix what’s currently broken in the customer’s end-to-end journey. Reward people for bringing up key issues especially those who find ways to solve them.

“Build a culture that rewards — not punishes — people for getting problems into the open where they can be solved.” — Ben Horowitz

By getting all the details right, you can be confident you’ll end up with a culture shaped by each and every person in the company trying to pursue the end-goal. There’ll be no more staring at the ceiling trying to look for an answer when someone asks about your company’s culture. Having helped shape it, everyone will most likely be a thrilled advocate of the current culture capable of talking about it ad lib.

Lastly, don’t concern yourself with people who are not working towards the end-goal. Once everything and everyone is aligned, they will voluntarily ostracize themselves for being such bad fits in the new culture.

Before you finish drinking that pitcher of Kool-Aid

If you’re someone interviewing for a job — God-willing they give you a chance to ask questions — I highly encourage asking about the mission of the company, what their long term goals are, and what they’re currently doing to achieve both.

Hopefully, you get interviewed by a number of people so you get to see if everyone’s aligned. If the first interviewer, usually someone from Human Resources, can’t easily answer the supposedly easy questions and has to pull someone in, take that as a hint of a possibly misaligned company culture. Exit gracefully and consider other options.

If you’re a CEO or someone assigned to turn around your company’s culture, you have two important things to do: (1) make sure everyone is aligned with the mission and vision of the company, and (2) make sure they can answer questions from applicants or whoever outside the company without having to pull someone else in.

At the end of the day, remember that culture cannot be forced. No matter how ridiculously expensive your espresso machine is [that it actually came with a barista] or how many mini-kitchens you have within the promixmity of your polished cement floors, no matter how flexible you have become in your working hours — or how many vacation leaves you wholeheartedly allow your people to take, the superficial things can never replace authentic culture that’s built on everyone’s authentic appreciation of the company’s mission and purpose.