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Culture matters even at the start

on Fri, 02/22/2013 - 14:41

A few days ago, Todd McKinnon asserted in a WSJ blog article that "long term success is not predicated on creating a world-class company culture." He also states "Forget about cultural fit and instead get people in the door that can create a beautiful product and bring passion to the problems your company is out to solve."

My friend Bob Mason blogged a response suggesting that people's beliefs on the importance of company culture would quickly shift to a quasi-religious battle between believers & non-believers.

Let me firmly place myself in the camp of those who believe culture, and cultural fit, is crucial in the earliest days of a company.

And I think Todd has a undeveloped definition of culture. He speaks of culture with examples like team happy hours, company softball leagues, and Yoga Wednesdays. These aren't cultural values - they're company benefits.

Culture is the sum of the beliefs, values, goals, shared knowledge, and the way of being of a company. Culture is the way of life for a group of people – the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.  It's the equivalent of the personality of a company. A company has one, whether they have explicitly articulated, and managed to it - or not.

And it matters.  Look at your personal life - you don't decide if you like an individual just because they do or don't practice Yoga, or drink beer on Thursday. Those might be data points, but aren't controlling. You instead decide you like what the totality of that person is. And you then decide whether to befriend & be with that person - or not - depending on whether you like the totality. You build your circle of friends based on a comfort with they are - not necessarily any specific thing they do.

It's the same with companies, and employees: You will naturally attract, and retain, people that fit the personality of your company. In fact, a company's culture - implicit or explicit - acts as a natural immune system in a company: People who don't fit the culture will eject themselves, or be ejected. So hiring for cultural fit reduces employee churn, and creates a more cohesive team that can work together better and faster.

What's your culture?

The tricky part is defining what your company culture is. Few people actually see it done explicitly, or well. I can't say I've been perfect at it, either.

But it starts by having the startup team - either the founders, or a larger leadership team - sitting down and simply identifying the beliefs, values, goals, etc. of the people who are there, and which of these are things the participants think is important to preserve in a company.

Sample things to consider: How much information do you like to have before acting? Would you rather have a less-perfect person at the HQ, or the perfect person who is remote? Do you favor ability or experience? Are you a stickler about code cleanliness, or is pretty code a waste of valuable time? Are you like Oracle (sales drives priorities), or Apple (product / design driven), or Google (vision-driven)?  THIS is defining your culture.

For instance, one of the cultural values at Acquia we believed in was that we'd hire people that have four key attributes: Passion, Intelligence, Integrity, and Initiative.

  • People with natural passion exude it in all aspects of their being - passion to succeed, passion to work and play hard, passion about Drupal, etc. This type of employee has a huge effect on people around them, motivating others who are temporarily down, etc. A collection of highly passionate people creates an atmosphere that is electric, attractive, and speedy.
  • Intelligent people will recognize what is working - and what isn't - in a startup, and can be key in reducing the time spent doing things that won't help success. Smart people appreciate contributions of other smart people and want to work with them.
  • We want to be able to rely on the word of our peers. If they say they will, or won't do or say something, you can bank on it. Not only does this help mere predictability, it dramatically builds a sense that you can trust your co-workers - which has huge implications on execution speed.
  • Ask forgiveness, not permission. A company with this culture gets more stuff done than a company with a culture where permission from a superior is required before action. It's the difference between a startup and a rigid bureaucracy. Initiative helps startups succeed.

Other values at Acquia: A two-way relationship with the Drupal community is essential; the health of the Drupal community is as important as (and likely a condition precedent to) the health of Acquia; speed rules; winning is more fun than losing.  Etc.

What to do with it

Once the founders or leaders have identified the beliefs & values they consider key, codify them. Put them on your intranet, in one of your board decks, make them explicit.

Then, start interviewing prospective hires to figure out if they're a cultural fit with the company (and behavioral fit with the role). Success at this is, IMO, the key reason Acquia is a successful company.

I note also that company culture will also define how the company responds in a crisis. These crises will often happen when there are 2, 5, or 20 people in a company. And frankly, they'll happen a LOT before the company has figured out its business model, and how to succeed.

So, yes, Todd - people want to work for a successful company, impact is sexy, and timing is everything. BUT these only happen when you have a team that fits together, and shares in the culture you create for your company - regardless of size & stage. And I think you realize this - you advise startups to hire people who "... bring passion to the problems your company is out to solve." Clearly, we share the cultural value of hiring passionate people. I wonder what your employees say the rest of the culture and personality of Okta is? Do you know? Is it explicit? It's certainly implicit. Don't you think it would be better to be explicit, and leveraged?

I do.

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