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Creating culture

It’s commonplace in startups, to define a set of values. Witty remarks of how you, the employee, should act while working for this business. Sometimes, they’re turned into murals throughout the office. An ever-present reminder that this is what you value.

“Teamwork makes the dream work” is one such commonality. Like many others, the problem with it is that it’s abstract.

A simple phrase such as the one above is full of meaning. You can see why organisations like it too. Who doesn’t want teamwork within their org? The trouble is, it’s open to misunderstanding. It has to contend with each person’s interpretation.

To paraphrase Ben Horowitz: culture is not the values you hold. It’s the actions you take.

When you take Ben’s understanding and apply it, you take these abstract concepts and give them meaning. Teamwork? Is that cross-team collaboration? Pair programming? Building lasting friendships with the rest of the team?

When you discuss the actions you believe people should be taking, it forces you to think in realistic terms, rather than the abstract.

You might say that it’s impossible to avoid the abstract when your company has grown beyond a handful of people. But this is not the case. Culture the actions of the people at the top, even when there’s a flat hierarchy.

A micromanaging CEO will lead to micromanaging VPs, which will lead to micromanaging team leads. A respectful CEO who always arrives to meetings on time creates a culture which values each others time.

You might also say that the abstract is necessary to convey the ideas to everyone across the business. That you can’t dictate people’s behaviour. They won’t listen, or you’ll miss vital edge cases. But true enough, this is not the case. Defining culture in this way is not about prescribing behaviours. It’s about understanding what behaviours make up the culture and then putting them into practice.

This extends well beyond work, and into relationships too. When you’re out of the honeymoon phase and start getting to know each other, each other’s actions become more clear. The culture each individual operates within and whether they’re compatible. By adopting practices of love and honesty as early as possible, you set the culture of the relationship. By demonstrating that honesty is what you want—through some act of honesty—you set the tone of the relationship and start to create a mutual agreement of how both parties should act.

From my own experience, this has meant me being open about the highs and lows of my life, with a prospective lover. It’s difficult at first, talking about some very private moments so soon after meeting someone (not on the first date!), but it provided the starting point. The side effect is now we have a wonderful relationship where this behaviour is the default. We’ve defined our culture and hold each other accountable to it.

To create the culture you want is much more than understanding the values you hold. It’s showing those values to the world. By taking action, you’re laying the groundwork for the culture you want to create.