According to Tim Brady (CPO Yahoo) “Culture is behavior. Company culture is that implicit set of behaviors inside your company that inform your employees on how to behave when it hasn’t been explicitly laid out for them.” We lean on Tim's viewpoint in the write up below.
Anne Morriss at Harvard Business Review has a similar view.
The right set of behaviors in your company will support good business even if you are a start up where it might seem like a luxury to allocate time to think about culture. Scaling the business involves hiring people and the people that are in your company before you start scaling make up the cultural DNA of your company. This early set of employees will eventually be involved in hiring and training the next generation of employees and its critical to get your culture right with your first set of employees before you start scaling and hiring. Getting it right with the first set of employees puts you in a much stronger position for building a strong and coherent culture for the future. At the same time, if you fail in building the right culture with the first set of employees, it is more likely that the mistakes will be repeated with the next set of hire.
6 steps that you can take towards building a solid culture from an early stage
- Take pride in the fact that you are solving a problem :
This might sound like a no brainer, but chances are that you might not relate with a problem if you have not faced the problem yourself. At a minimum, you need to be able to identify with the people that are facing the problem and you need to feel genuinely proud that you are solving it for them. Building a company can be a long, difficult process and if you are not proud about what you are working on, it can become very tough to maintain the level of energy and enthusiasm you need when faced with obstacles and disappointments. If the idea that you picked was driven by your ego, something that sounds cool to tell your friends at a party it will be tough to sustain the energy and the enthusiasm about the idea when you start facing challenges and the situation gets tough. As a founder you are constantly on the stage and your energy and enthusiasm is being constantly observed by the employees following your dream. The way you demonstrate how you feel about the business and the company will set the tone for your culture to a large extent.
- Create a long term vision for others to follow :
Make sure that A.) people identify with the problem that you are solving and B.) know that you are solving the problem. Make it extremely easy for them to understand what you are solving and participate. A well crafted and delivered vision statement of your company can act as the guiding light for everyone. You vision statement should explain the reason behind the work each employee is putting in on a daily basis.
Tesla's vision : To accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.
They could have said “we are building the world's best electrical vehicle” and it would have definitely inspired a select audience that understands the technical expertise and challenges behind building an electric vehicle. But they managed to come out with a vision statement that is inspiring without any mention about the electric vehicle. In the process they managed to attract a broader audience instead of a handful of engineers.
Google's vision : Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.
No mention about the powerful search engine but a vision statement that appeals to and attracts a broader audience.
- List your values then model the behavior :
Get to an agreement with your co founder/leadership team on the kind of behavior and values you want to cultivate within your company. You can always start with a small informal list that can evolve into a polished corporate list as your company scales. Apply this list during your hiring process to ensure that you are letting the right type of people inside the company. This list of behaviors is above and beyond the job description and the skill list.
Some famous examples :
Atlassian (my personal favorite)
+ Open company, no bullshit
+ Build with heart and balance
+ Don’t #@!% the customer
+ Play as a team
+ Be the change you seek
You own short list can include questions such as - What kind of company do you want to build? What type of behavior will support the business that you are building.
After you brainstorm and arrive at this list, don't leave it on a piece of paper or file and wait for marketing to polish and publish a few years later. Early employees will look to you for the cultural cues and you have to model the behavior. You have to walk the talk and employees will draw their cues from you.
- Map your culture with your customer.
Culture also provides an informal control mechanism, a strong sense of identification with the organization and shared understanding among employees about what is important. Ensure that your list of values is also externally focused. A list of desired values that is externally focused on the customer will serve your company much better in the long haul.
Google's motto “Don't be evil”
It gives Google employees a guideline on how to behave and impact is visible.
Google engineers are allowed to work 20% of their time on their independent projects, it's really impressive that none one them have gone stray considering the amount of data they have access to.
- Discuss the importance of diversity in your company :
Have a conversation about diversity of opinions, not just gender and ethnic diversity. Can you create a culture where people with strong diagonally opposite opinions can co-exist? Can you foster conversations that are loud but when people walk away they are okay? How important is that to your business? There is enough research out there to suggest that companies that can manage to create such a diverse culture tend to be more creative and better problem solvers.
While trying to hire too quickly with scale, you might end up creating a more homogenous environment. You should decide early on how important it is for you/your company to have diversity. It's unrealistic to expect that you will create a diversity program when you are at 100 employees. It's way too hard by then and probably too late.
- Create and evolve a hiring process that focuses on the culture fit :
Make sure you are following a process from the very first employee. The type of values you want to instill in your company and the type of diversity you want should go into your hiring process from Day 1. After you hire your first couple of employees make sure you assess whether the process is working. A month or two after your first hires, evaluate whether your hiring process was effective. Did it filter candidates the right way? Do you have the right type of people in your company at this point? If it didn't work well, evolve it. By the time you are ready to scale, you want your hiring process to be tested and familiar to you.
It's never too early to start!
Engagepulse is an all-in-one HR platform that can be used by lean teams without breaking the bank and scale as your company grows. We will be excited to discuss how we can act as a growth catalyst for your start up.