I’ve been thinking about culture lately, particularly how companies establish and evolve their culture over time.
I think there are some specific and important things that companies can do when it comes to setting and keeping company culture. However, before I get into it, I want to caveat them all with one thing.
The culture will largely be defined by the personality of the leadership team, particularly the CEO.
I’ll say that again, in a slightly different way:
How the CEO and leadership team go about their work (things they say and do, the decisions they make) is the biggest factor in the type of culture that is created.
The buck really does stop here.
Here’s a quick example.
In the early days of Jagex, the CEO and founder were very frugal and careful when it came to spending money.
They travelled economy and stayed in sensible hotels. They didn’t have better offices or equipment than anyone else. They didn’t grow their own teams or have personal support until they were genuinely stretched enough. They didn’t arrive to work in fancy cars. etc. etc.
As a result, the whole company took on that value.
I don’t even remember the CEO or founder ever talking much about being frugal and careful with spending money. It was just a strong value for them and part of their personalities, so they naturally led by example in that area.
Now, can you imagine if they had done all of the right things to establish being sensible and frugal with money as a company value and then went ahead and did the opposite? This may even be something you have seen in action at a place you’ve worked.
The downfall of the banks is also a good example to consider.
A culture of excessive risk-taking and bad behavior was encouraged and often rewarded. Now, I wasn’t in those companies, but I think it’s safe to say the leaders in these organisations set completely the wrong example in the things they said and did, and the decisions they made and everyone just followed.
How to create and keep culture
Leadership needs to set the example – I know I am repeating myself, but I really don’t care because this is the single, most important thing. If you don’t do it, everything will unravel.
If you do NOTHING ELSE, decide as a leadership group what values are important and that you want in the company and then simply get out there and act as you expect everyone else to.
Remember, it’s when the business faces tough challenges and difficult decisions, that people in the organisation are looking to see how leadership responds. This can be the toughest time to stick to your values, but potentially the most important. People remember these moments the most.
And this applies to leadership at all levels. As your company grows and starts to have more structure, you simply can’t be everywhere in the business. You will need to rely on all levels of leadership to be ambassadors for creating the right culture and setting the right example. This is critical for ensuring your culture and values spread through the organisation and that you keep your culture as you scale.
Define your values – You can’t expect everyone to follow certain values if you don’t clearly define them. The process for this doesn’t have to be overly complex, but probably deserves a post of it’s own. So I will just say two things.
Firstly, allow some collaboration. This will give you the best end result and will ensure buy in. Involve the leadership team, senior people, founder / high influence type people and perhaps even the whole company (be a bit careful with this one though).
Secondly (and perhaps in contradiction to the first point), whilst you want collaboration, don’t get stuck in design by committee. Remember, you are leaders of the business, so you need to LEAD. This means setting the direction when it comes to values (or at least a good starting point for debate) and deciding on what they finally are.
Finding the right balance between you as leaders setting the scene, but also allowing collaboration is the key.
Make values visible and talk about them – Whatever way you decide, the key is to keep them in the forefront of peoples minds as often as possible.
If you ask someone spontaneously to describe the company culture or values and they look at you with a blank face or give you an answer you don’t like, you’ve gone wrong somewhere.
The more natural and unforced, the better. Culture / value posters, use of the company intranet, stationary, culture books etc. are all decent initiatives, but they also have a sense of being a bit forced.
It’s better to look for more natural and subtle ways to talk about culture with everyone. Highlighting and rewarding the right behaviour and talking openly about it when someone doesn’t (have to be careful here, but it can be done) can be the most powerful.
In summary, talk about them often and with context, and make them visible to all.
New employees and induction programmes – This should be part of the previous point, but I think it’s so important I wanted to pull it out separately.
The first few days, weeks and months in a new employees journey with you is so important. They are normally super excited, open minded and impressionable.
You literally have a time window to impress upon them a few important things and what you say is likely to stick and last, so use the time wisely.
I’d try spending at least a few hours with people on their first day and over their first few weeks to introduce them to the company culture and values. It needs to be the CEO and some senior leadership, not a random HR advisor who happens to be free that day.
Try and get some open discussion going and give as much context and examples as you can. I think even telling people stories of employees who have been fired for displaying the wrong values can be appropriate if done properly.
You can learn a lot about people in this period and it can be a good way to identify early on those who may fit in really well or perhaps not (it’s important it doesn’t feel this is the reason you are having the conversation though).
Hire the right people (and let the wrong people go) – Kind of obvious, but as you build the company you need to ensure your culture and values are a big part of your recruitment process.
Ask the candidate interesting questions which will generate discussion around some of your values (preferably before you tell them what they are). Try and get them to talk about how they have acted in certain situations.
It’s really about clever questioning here. Ideally you want to be identifying people who are naturally aligned to your culture and values aswell as weeding out those who aren’t.
Mistakes get made at the recruitment level, it happens. So if you find yourself hiring someone who doesn’t share your values, have the conversation as early as possible. Discuss it candidly and be open minded about how to resolve it.
But, if that person is truly not naturally aligned with your values, make the tough call – always.
And remember, responsibility for making the wrong decision falls with you, so be fair to the individual.
Last point on hiring. Take extra care when hiring leaders and managers.
As mentioned above, the key to keeping hold of your culture and values as you scale is relying on your leadership at all levels to set the right example and be ambassadors. If you make several mistakes here, you can get yourself into trouble quickly and it will be hard to reverse.
Don’t try too hard – Whilst you can follow all of the advice above, it shouldn’t feel like hard work and most of it should happen organically and naturally. If you know what your values are, talk about them often, lead by example and hire the right people in, things will fall into place.
If it feels like a slog or you feel in a bad place, take a pause. It will almost always be an issue with the above fundamentals.
If you find yourself in this situation, don’t fall into the trap of looking for short fixes or gimmicks. A larger culture poster isn’t going to fix a significant culture problem. You need to go back to the fundamentals and almost always, leaders of the organisation need to look inwards at themselves.
Think about culture and values early on – I’ll wrap up with one final point and that is, it’s never too early to spend time thinking about the culture you want to create and values you want to see from people.
If you have a start up, don’t make the mistake to think it can wait until you are bigger, it may be too late then.
It takes an enormous effort and commitment to change a culture once you’re some way down a road that you didn’t want to go down. And it’s not always possible to completely rectify.
It really does require ten times the effort to turn the ship, than just get it pointing in the right direction to start.
I get that a startup needs a laser focus on building their product or service, so I’m not suggesting spending loads of time on it.
But, time spent on defining your values and on hiring the right people that fit in with them early on, is well worth it.
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