Which Came First: Culture or Growth? Hopefully, It's Culture
This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Company Culture, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
Startups that grow into big corporations share many of the same characteristics: They foster innovation, resilience, agility and passion.
However, startups can’t successfully build on these crucial traits without the foundation of a strong company culture. In essence, each of these qualities is a product of culture.
If culture makes the business, you’d think most people would agree on what drives it. But a recent survey from the Workforce Institute at Kronos tells a different tale: A third of human resources professionals claim to take the lead on culture, while 26 percent of managers believe the executive team defines it.
Throw employees into the mix, and opinions diverge further: One-third of them feel they drive culture, and another 28 percent maintain that no one is accountable for creating or destroying it.
Keeping it real.
Disagreement about who drives, creates or is capable of damaging culture indicates that an organization’s culture isn’t aligned with its business objectives. If those are two different talking points, it’s hard to unite everyone through culture.
Consider this: Assume you’ve just hired a bunch of employees. Afterward, you read about a cool office that meets regularly for happy hours. Trying to adopt this strategy out of nowhere will feel backward. If happy hours weren’t mentioned at onboarding, your team won’t see them as an authentic expression of your culture. When leaders try to retrofit something on top of an existing framework, it’s often met with resentment. Culture is fundamental throughout the process; you can’t focus on it after the fact.
For instance, take the pending acquisition of Virgin America by Alaska Air. Both organizations come to the table with very different cultures. The challenge will be blending them together into a new entity that represents what it plans to become in the future.
So, how do you ensure everyone at your company starts on the same culture page?
Define yourself as an individual.
An entrepreneur’s company culture mirrors who he or she is on a personal level. Our company culture has three main components: Get sh*t done, learn quickly and be cool (in other words, don’t be a jerk). These maxims flow directly from the traits that helped my partner and me find success in our own lives.
I’ve tried before to instill a culture that wasn’t true to me, but I felt like I was faking it. Now, I’m the same guy at work as I am in the rest of my life. To get to the heart of your culture, go beyond the surface, and ask yourself hard questions about who you are as a person: Are you strong, weak, confident or effective? Find your core values and beliefs, and align them with your business objectives to create a thriving culture.
Start with the very first hire.
Culture should be the first thing a new hire observes. Our culture statement can be seen in every ad, offer letter and employee handbook. Everywhere new hires look, they see our three core values.
Zappos also takes orientation very seriously, devoting four weeks to the process. From day one, new hires hear about its “holocratic” approach to running the business: There are no real job titles, no managers and no hierarchy. If that approach doesn’t suit a new employee, the company even offers a buyout of one month’s salary.
Define culture when you have fewer employees, as it’s easier for one person to change the mood in a room of four than it is in a crowd of 100. That small team will eventually serve as cultural ambassadors for new hires. And as it grows, the core values from your early days will flourish.
Align business decisions with culture.
For more than 80 percent of employers, cultural fit is a top priority in hiring decisions -- including the hiring and firing of clients. Everyone you work with and every decision you make should align with your culture. If they don’t, friction, conflict and confusion are bound to arise. We’ve certainly let go of clients who didn’t exemplify our core value regarding partnership (be cool).
For example, we once developed a game plan for two clients that was on-point with what they wanted from the start. But, for whatever reason, they were consistently disrespectful, rude and insulting -- despite positive results. So we fired them. Exposing employees to that sort of negativity isn’t good for morale.
Yammer, a social network owned by Microsoft, takes a similarly forthright approach to evaluating new hires. It eliminated nearly 30 percent of its engineers within the first four years because they lacked the skills needed to drive success, which dragged down other employees.
Make culture corrections publicly.
People might discuss culture in closed-door meetings at other companies, but we address issues that support and bolster or go against our culture publicly. We do the same when correcting them.
Recently, someone at the company said I was being negative every morning in stand-up, so I made a note to myself that said, “Praise in public; criticize individually in private.” If I start seeing a theme, however, I’ll take it public.
As former L.A. Lakers coach Phil Jackson said, “I’ve found that anger is the enemy of instruction.” So I’m not going to berate people publicly for making mistakes they probably already feel bad about.
No magic wand.
You can’t wave a magic wand and expect people to accept a culture without some sort of precedence and grounding. You set the example for your first hires; they set the example for the second round, and so on.
The truth is, you need to set the example -- and set it early -- for every employee at your company. Align your culture with your core beliefs and your business objectives, and don’t be afraid to correct missteps. Regardless of what people think about who sets the culture in other companies, it’s up to you to set the tone for yours.