I remember my first interview at PayPal. PayPal would become the second startup I’d join. The first was closing its office in the Bay Area and moving to San Diego. I was one of the few offered a job in San Diego. I turned them down as I didn’t believe the company would make it. So days before my PayPal interview, I was cleaning out the CEO and CTO’s office. It was a sad day.
As I walked through the aisles at PayPal I could tell it was different. They had the standard gray cubicles, but there were decorations on the ceilings and tented cubicles where the engineers worked. This place had a personality. I longed for that. It had been three years since I joined a team that had true camaraderie, was a place where I could learn and belong. Personally, these three factors are still important to me.
Where do you long to work? Do you know where your team longs to work? Perhaps it’s a place where...
- they have fun
- feedback is freely asked for and given
- people are engaged & want to come to work
- wellness is a priority
- there are opportunities to learn mastery of a skill
- innovation is welcomed
We often think of leadership responsibilities to include managing a team, a vision, or a project. Truth. Leadership is a lot more than management. It’s critical in creating community and culture. The leaders and culture are what makes Southwest Airlines different from United Airlines, In N’ Out different from Mc Donald’s, and Pete’s coffee different from Starbucks.
For some culture may just be a current buzzword. For those who understand it and shape it, it is a powerful tool for company success. Creating a lasting and engaging culture can be better than finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It becomes the invisible glue that holds a company together. When we think of culture it’s easy to point at the decor, the free stuff that employees get, and the HR policies in place. These are all artifacts of culture, but not culture itself.
In Organization Development there is a saying, “ Culture will eat strategy for breakfast". We know that most change efforts will fail if the right culture isn’t in place. It’s a lot easier to build a culture than to change it.
So how do you build a culture you long to belong to?
Culture is invisible.
It’s the beliefs, values, and actions of leadership that demonstrate "how we do things around here". It helps each team member know how their work world works, what’s acceptable and what’s not. It reduces uncertainty, creates continuity, and a collective identity amongst employees. Culture has a substantial influence on each person’s behavior.
Think about it this way. Babies grow up learning to mimic their parents, siblings, and caregivers. By watching and doing what they see, they learn how to belong in their families. They learn what’s right and wrong. Place that very same baby in another family, they’d learn a different set of behaviors. This sums up the same process new employees go through when they join a new company. They learn what’s right and wrong from the moment they first contact your company, through how they are treated in the interview process, and every day on the job.
Edgar Schein in the book “Organizational Culture and Leadership” talks about levels of culture. The base level is the assumptions made. It’s the taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of people. This informs the next level, beliefs & values, which inform your company's strategies, goals, and philosophy. This all informs the top level, artifacts. Artifacts are objects, company stories, company rituals, organizational structures, policies, and so on.
At the end of the day, you and your company's underlying assumptions and behaviors create objects, shared stories, behaviors, and even shared feelings. It becomes the story your team tells about its work and their place at the company. As a leader, you are directly responsible for the culture. Employees learn by watching what you say and do.
You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what you reinforce.
To be super simple, culture is created by the behaviors and decisions you make. Your actions mold policy, reactions to problems, and more. Your values, priorities, and ways of treating people will model to others what’s important and acceptable. You create the environment you work in.
It’s tempting to want to focus on the fun stuff such as how the office looks, the free meals, and snacks in the kitchen. It’s also tempting to be hyper-vigilant; wanting to review every decision, meet every interview candidate, and be involved in how everything goes. This is where most leaders focus their thoughts, time and energy; however, this is like putting lipstick on a pig. Unless you look at the deeper assumptions and behaviors, I’m sorry to say you are still dressing up a pig. If you are an entrepreneur you are lucky. You are at the beginning of your company’s journey and have the opportunity to create something from scratch.
I offer some questions to help you think about the team you want to create and the team you want to work with:
- How do you want people to feel when they are at work?
- What stories do you want people to tell about their day at work?
- What stories do you want your employees to tell about their job and workplace? Imagine if the only way you could ever recruit was through word of mouth. What would people be saying?
- What behaviors do you want to see and encourage every day?
- How can you solve long-term problems now? Employee engagement, gender bias, diversity, innovation, etc.
- What do you value most? Quality over quantity, innovation over cost…
- What do you want to guide your decisions? There is a school of thought that groups all decisions into two buckets: routine and unique. For any decision that will be made over and over, create a set of parameters to follow. Think of your routine decisions: hiring, promotions, budget decisions, schedule decisions, on and on. What are the parameters and assumptions that will guide you?
Answer these questions and then equip every leader and employee on your team with the why, the values, the tools, practices, definitions of success, and guidelines that will allow them to effectively and intentionally shape that culture. Next, think about your own behavior and what it’s teaching others. What hours you work, how vulnerable you are, how much information you disclose, how honest you are and more. All these things teach people how they can be successful at work and belong.
With all things, there is a shadow
If you can’t walk the talk, then don’t talk the talk.
Nothing erodes culture like lack of trust and respect. As leaders, we can say we encourage openness and feedback; however if you are at an all company meeting and get a hard question that you decline to answer or sidestep that action will do more to shape your culture than anything you ever say. Be ready to put your words into action.
My best advice for creating a long-term culture
If you can only do one thing to create a lasting culture, be clear about your why. Your why is the purpose of your company and the product/service you are offering. Your why defines what success is. It becomes the how you do your work. Look beyond the imperative of financial success. What is the lasting impact you want to have on your employees, your community, your customers, and the world? Be clear on your why with each person you hire and each customer you attract, soon you’ll build a lasting community that can take on a life of its own. That is the power of culture!