Culture has become a bit of an ethereal concept when it comes to startups. It’s all well and good reading Op-Eds about ‘amazing startup cultures’ next to pictures of slides and a multitude of millennials all working at Google, but there is so much more to it and it risks just becoming a cliche for the companies that should focus on it most.
There is universal understanding that a strong mission and culture can be important parts of a high growth business, but ‘why’ and ‘how’ companies go about it ends up being neglected.
Firstly, it’s a sensible thing to step back and think about the meaning of the word:
Culture itself can be loosely defined, in business, as the common ways of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization.
In order for these commonalities to be used effectively, they need to be universally understood. Although rituals like beers and table football can become experiences that some of your team can get involved in, to hold them up in your job adverts as key benefits or cultural signifiers belies the true mission of your business and can put plenty of others off your company. It’s the same as saying British culture is defined through red telephone boxes and a National Health Service.
These oft-used signifiers also make it very easy to fall into the trap of building homogenous teams; and as has been proven on many occasions, diverse teams lead to greater financial performance. This was made clear in the McKinsey Diversity Matters report from 2015, best put through these two quotes:
“In the United States, there is a linear relationship between racial and ethnic diversity and better financial performance: for every 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8 percent.”
“Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”
To avoid this cultural minefield, you need to first focus on the mission and values of your business, which will have been shaped and moulded by the founders and early employees.
These common behaviours might not be immediately obvious, so as a founder or HR team you will really need to think very introspectively in order to understand what makes your team thrive and how to communicate this both internally and externally. There’s no point taking your cues from other companies either – this needs to be contextual to your business and will form a huge part of your identity for the future – so put that Laszlo Bock book down!
These values and your mission also need to be understood and lived by the entire team, so it’s worth speaking to everyone in the business and understanding what they believe them to be. You’re not looking for aspirational values here either, these can appear hollow and do more to damage internal engagement than having no codified values.
For example, saying your company believes in transparency, whilst sharing nothing with your teams will lead to internal frustration and external discussions along the lines of: “It’s a nice place to work, but although the founders say they’re transparent, it’s actually BS”
When someone asks what the culture is like, you really want someone on your team to be saying something akin to “Everything changes constantly but we have the freedom to choose our own projects and I really believe in what the founders say”. This represents a far more positive culture, driven by your team’s understanding of behavioural value (autonomy, for example) with a belief that your mission is achievable.
With this approach, you should then a short set (which is far more honest and believable) of values, a nice tight company mission and then a culture that will grow in line with your team’s expectations.
How to do this?
I’m not one to adhere to ‘best practices’, but to round up my thoughts, and based on some of the better ways I’ve seen people work on culture, I’ve included a little round up of the key principles to bear in mind:
- Start at the beginning and the top – it needs to be grown by the founders, lived by the team. It’s an organic process that needs to be managed during inorganic growth.
- There is no ‘best’ culture and you can’t steal from someone else. The ones that succeed are honest, put the mission at the heart of what they do and respect the context of the business.
- Speak with your team, understand what they believe to be the culture, then nurture the good parts and make changes based on any issues RE homogeneity.
- Work with your HR team to measure, analyse, respond and act. You can use products such as officevibe to better understand the team’s engagement with your culture.