Building company cultures worth joining and working for with unabated loyalty takes a lot of work and thought. We just held an Aleph.bet event on this topic and we thought it would be worthwhile to share our thoughts over two blog posts.
As I explained in Part 1 of this series, when it comes to determining the fundamentals of your culture and becoming a company (and a brand) that people are proud to work for, there are number of clichés you will come across and need to be aware of. The previous four focused on tangible markers of company culture, and these four additional clichés are around the ongoing operative challenges of running that culture day in and day out. Hopefully these observations and fine tunings will inspire you to turn your startup’s culture to something worth joining:
Cliché 5: Hire The Right People
Gee thanks Ron, I was planning to hire lots and lots of douchebags. In fact, that was my master plan all along but now that you’ve said it, I’m going to invest time in making sure I get the right folks. The reality is, there aren’t any right hires, there are the right team members for you and your culture and it’s about asking the hard questions in order to make sure you’re adding someone who’s complementary. Sometimes that means you’ll have to say “no” to extremely talented individuals because they are not a good cultural fit, even if you know deep inside that he/she can move the needle. You will need to sacrifice short-term benefits that you very much need in order to protect and enhance your culture (your truth) for the long term. In this Harvard Business Review, Eric C. Sinoway breaks down types of employees and how they impact your company’s culture. Here is the money line: “Vampires are the real threat. These employees perform well but in a manner that is at cross-purposes with desired organizational culture. Because their functional performance is strong, they acquire power and influence”.
Those bad vibes and wrong attitudes are dangerous to the company’s culture, which is bad for business (not to mention your facial skin). Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, one of the strongest advocates of startup cultures, makes a great point when highlighting the fact that the people you hire represent your company even outside of work. They’ll become brand ambassadors both inside and outside, so think twice and choose carefully who gets to represent you. I personally think the best predictor of what someone will be like in the future is to look at their past. Make the phone call, ask many people and…hire the right people.
Cliché 6: Cash is King
Hiring the right folks is not only about calibrating their performance level but also understanding what makes them tick, what is it they’re mostly looking to get out of a “job”? Cash, stock, benefits and culture are all critical factors in the employee’s compensation but the former is often overrated and the latter isn’t just a thing – it’s the thing. Traditional rewards aren’t merely as effective as modern managers tend to think. In my mind, the ideal way to articulate the complex give-and-take relationship to a potential candidate is with these three pillars:
- Base: anything from the paycheck, bonus, terms and benefits. While it’s key for most team members, it’s just one pillar out of the employee’s overall compensation that mainly reinforces the recurring, short-term reward.
- Equity: any type of holdings vehicle (stock, ESOP, RSU) that provides the workforce with an ownership interest. Very common and highly effective, this is the mid-long term opportunity, basically saying that if we do well, then you do well and our interests are aligned.
- Culture: the blend of much needed rituals, values, DNA, self esteem, learning curve, career path, after hours and most importantly people you get the work with. This is what long term is all about.
In a perfect world, the candidate should value this critical third pillar, culture. It shouldn’t be about the cool office space, but rather the absolute privilege to walk into the nearby open-space and work shoulder to shoulder with your bright & creative office-mate. Then, he/she can find another great teammate and break some glass with them. Your team should see this as the most long-term aspect of his/her overall compensation because that’s where the career opportunity lies. These are the people who’ll support his career trajectory more than the next short term raise or promotion. It is this team that will drive the pace of change together and they are his future network in a field that is all about staying relevant. ”I prefer the word friendship to networks, and I think the critical piece was that some incredibly deep friendships were forged. I think that is what’s very underrated in our world today” (Peter Thiel, “PayPal Mafia”)
Cliché 7: Cool Workspaces Rule
Yea sure, the workplace should be awesome, it should be something people think about every day and look forward to going back to. Ideally, it should feel like home. That’s a big word right there, think about what Home means to you. For me it’s a place where you don’t look at the time, it’s an environment where you feel comfortable. Pay a visit to Meerkat’s HQ if you want to see a CEO in his slippers. Another personal hidden passion of mine is replacing ALL white light bulbs to warm yellow ones (small obsession, #nojudging). In reality, there are no magic tricks to a cozy atmosphere – you have to genuinely give a damn about the space in order for it to even feel remotely close to a…home. The culture should be designed to alleviate work related stress. This is why culture matters. Culture sustains the team’s spirit and the “tenants” enthusiasm. Building a winning culture is often confused with being cool. It’s really not about your new office décor, colourful hoodies, office dog, witty posters, drinking games nor your weekend hacking. A culture that will make people want to join and others want to stay is not about vibes as much as it is about what’s genuinely valued in the system.
Cliché 8: Empowering Others is Key
It’s no secret that employees who are empowered to take action and execute work independently are happier and more fulfilled. If you encourage debate, give credit and reward for effort, you’ll make an impact on the business. It is also not surprising that companies with engaged employees outperform those without by 202%. However, the most impactful long term empowerment a leader can give isn’t around the product roadmap or the engineering architecture – it’s about culture, and for that, you’ll need to find your flag carrier. As founders, we jump-start the company’s culture, we create it with a balanced blend of attitudes, actions and beliefs, but we can only take it so far. Figuring out who your flag carrier is and empowering him\her is what will take your culture to the next level of camaraderie. Your flag carrier is that creative persona and inner leader who couldn’t be happier to work for this organization and with this team. He/She wears your t-shirt often (even as jammies), motivates others, is genuinely proud to walk the streets like a messenger on a mission. Once in a while she’ll want to start a new ritual, kick off a tradition or throw an event – my advice is to give the flag carriers a few small pointers and then to just let them do their thing, they’ll flourish when given the right amount of freedom. That creative someone is passionately engaged, any action she’ll take is coming from a unique sense of confidence and empowerment. The thing to remember about startup culture is that founders get to ignite it and nurture it, but don’t get to keep it. You can’t. At some point, you need to follow the spark, let it be and watch the new living breathing DNA rise up, observe and absorb its beauty.
These are the eight clichés that I thought deserve tweaking on the path to building great company culture. What else would you add? Or are there other examples you had in mind as you read these posts?
Read more in Part 1 of Building a Culture Worth Joining.
Thanks to all those who reviewed the post before I published it: Oona, Yael and Michael.
Illustrations by the talented Keren Rosen.