10 Jul 2015
Culture is Cultivated, Not Dictated
Recently, I left a company that I joined three years ago as a founding team member. During that period, I watched the company grow from 5 people to 50. We did everything that we were told to do. We grew sales in a race to cover our market, sourced hungry leaders eager to make their mark, and focused on scaling our engineering resources. Yet I still sit here, having watched us wither back to a barebones team, trying to pinpoint what went wrong.
It is easy to point to any number of things that caused things to go wrong; we certainly did. Did we hire the right people? Did we listen to our customers?Did we move quickly enough? The potential reasons are endless. However, looking back at the last 3 years, it became clear that everything stemmed from one thing: culture.
All companies have a culture, good or bad, it exists. The problem was the culture our company had was not necessarily the culture we set out to build. It wasn't the culture we told everyone, including ourselves, that we had. We spent countless hours defining who we were, and it didn't matter in the least. You're probably wondering how that happens. How does a company spend so much time focusing on culture, and yet completely miss the mark?
When we started to grow, we wanted to keep the same culture that made us successful up to that point. It made perfect sense, just keep doing what we have been, just with more people.
The trouble started with how we sought to accomplish maintaining that culture. We set clear guidelines. We told everyone how to respond to situations. We put it in presentation slides, made it part of our business plans, scored against it in performance reviews. We came up with mottos, acronyms, anything you can think of we did. We became masters at **dictating** our culture to our team.
Dictating your culture to your employees does nothing but frustrate them. People join startups for an opportunity to make their own way, to contribute in some larger way. If they wanted to just follow the leader, there are better paying, more secure jobs out there I promise you.
Our people were not bought into our culture because it was some rule they were told to follow. It was a box to check off, a mask they put on when they were "being watched", it wasn't their natural mode of operation. This static, top-down approach tries to force a specific culture onto your team.
A good culture is something that happens naturally. It is a direct result of how you choose to operate, the things you value, the behaviors you reward. You hire people who are excited about your way of doing things and how you approach problems. They in turn reinforce your culture further as they become a part of your team. You culture becomes a living, breathing thing, driven by every single person in the company.
When you have cultivated a culture, you don't need guidelines because your team naturally holds each other responsible. You don't need a slide in your deck because the team speaks to your values in every presentation. Every decision is driven by that culture, so it isn't just part of the plan, it **is** the plan.
Hire people who are stoked about your way of doing things, reward those who exemplify your values, and be open to allowing those same people to further cultivate and evolve your culture. With this in place your whole team will be well equipped and highly motivated to solve the many challenges your company will have to face.