You Need To Do This At Your Organization From Day One

Earlier this year, I was sitting around a table of successful entrepreneurs, listening to them talk about lessons learned in startup world.  One founder would soon sell his company for almost two hundred million dollars and the person sitting across from him had just successfully raised one hundred million bucks from Silicon Valley VCs.  These two cats knew their stuff. 

“If you could change anything about how you built your business, what would it be?” the recently funded CEO asked.  

“I would have built culture from day one,” replied the soon-to-be-swimming in dollars CEO.  “Just like Tony did at Zappos, start with culture then layer on a strategy.  If you wait until 20 people, it’s probably too late.  If you wait until 100 people, you’ll need to clean house unless you’ve been very lucky in recruiting people that are naturally tuned into your values.”  Deep.  

Last week, I gave a keynote at Foundercon, an annual leadership event for Tech Stars alumns. (If you haven’t read Do More Faster, you should grab it right away.)  Along with sharing my perspective from Love Is the Killer App, I talked to them about the critical importance of prioritizing the building of culture.  My message was that when culture builds itself, the buildings look like silos – not a collaborative web.  

I believe that culture is a conversation about “how we do things here.” Most culture is centered on how team members relate to each other as well as the outside world.   The leaders initiate the conversation, then punctuate it with action.  They don’t hire people that don’t fit the culture and they reward the ones that do in succession planning.  It’s all done very publicly, often talked about and frequently marketing at a visual level. (Signs of “Done Is Better Than Perfect” were everywhere at young facebook.) 

Whether you are starting a company, church or a team, if you want to lead, be on top of the conversation.  The value of culture building lies in Henry Chesbrough’s definition of the concept: “A set of values, properly expressed and enforced, that creates a system of social control.” If the culture is strong, every team member knows exactly what to do, even when the leaders aren’t there to tell them.  If the culture is about transparency, information is disclosed when asked for. If it’s about putting the customer first, then refunds with no questions asked are given by associates, even before it becomes a codified policy. 

Here’s the three keys to building culture, even with a small group: 

1.  Choose a few values that define the purpose of your business.  Make sure they are based on helping people or solving their problems.  Choose values you can get a teenager and a grand parent excited about.  HINT: “Maximizing shareholder returns” is a really lame value statement.  Sounds like a corporate conglomorate, which is fine for investors…but they are gone after they write the check…you need talent, partners and fans. 

2. Adopt rituals to promote your values, and integrate them into the fabric of your group.  Not just signs or placards, you need to plan events or choreograph group behavior around values.  If you value collaboration, have a Friday beer bust and be mindful of messaging.  If you value customer experience, host an annual gathering of them to open your ears and iterate.  Saturn automobile used this ritual to build relationships with customers, and at the same time, to cement their values around creating a wow experience for customers.

3. Use these values to make hiring, budgetary, firing and rewards decision.  If you are working at an established company, but fear that you need to re-build culture — you’ll likely need to let a few people go that don’t fit.  Words may resonate, but actions motivate others to buy-in. 

What are your organization’s values?  How are you driving them into the conversation?  Would love to hear about it in comments.