This is an excerpt post, see the full piece as it originally appeared on Wired.
Startup culture has received a lot of attention lately – people are looking for ways to improve the overall experience at work and some are even champions of seamlessly integrating work into their life. People don’t necessarily have absolute power to demand a higher salary or more vacation days but they do have high expectations. They’re interested in opportunities to connect with others who will help achieve their goals and find greater satisfaction in the process. How do we begin to reach these goals? By defining our startup culture, we can commit to better supporting the work itself, improve operations, make a more valuable contribution, and gain greater personal satisfaction.
What is Startup Culture? Many first-time startup founders struggle to devote time to define their culture from the beginning, only to come to the painful realization that culture certainly has an impact on the operational side of business. Seasoned founders and CEOs who believe there is room for culture from the beginning experience less culture-related stress as they grow. I often talk to folks at various stages of growth and find that although culture is seen as essential, many are unsure of how to define it for their own purposes. This can be particularly challenging when there are less than a handful of people on the team. I like to define startup culture by examining the company:
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Know what you value. You probably already have an idea of what you deem important for success. It may be that your values guide your actions in order to best serve the mission. If you don’t know which values to focus on, reflect on your positive and negative experiences with workplace culture in past situations and list relevant concepts and values. Choose values that are actionable and resonate with your company. If you identify your startup culture with values related to being bold but you know that isn’t important to your success or appropriate for your business, perhaps you should take a closer look at what makes your company tick. Values aren’t something that you have to put in writing for public display, that style isn’t for every startup. However, values should be something that most people can relate to and routinely act upon.
Communication is equally important. If you don’t know why you get out of bed each day to go to work, neither will anyone else. Tell everyone what you value, why you value it, and make sure you actively follow through by acting upon it. In return, you will have a company full of people who will be more likely to return the favor. If you value innovation you’ve probably thought often about how to maximize it. Beyond communicating that you view innovation as your road to success, you need to articulate it in a way that will have everyone participating in innovative work, be it through collaboration or providing adequate resources. The steps you take to demonstrate how you foster innovation will confirm that you value it. Collaborative experiences, through success and failure, offer others a chance to participate and take risks. At the end of the day everyone will go home a little more satisfied that their role contributed to the development of the startup.
Relationships are essential. When a candidate passes through your doors they are looking for red flags. Often, these red flags appear in the form of a neglected or misguided culture. Surround yourself with people who identify with your values. Mentor them, learn from them, and recognize them. This guarantees everyone will move in the same direction. An entire company of people who have a clear understanding of the values will know exactly how to proceed when a situation arises in the event of the absence of a key person. People are your greatest asset and have the ability to help your culture thrive or kill it altogether.
Don’t create another cookie-cutter culture, or how to be sustainable. In an attempt to build something that reflects your values, there are pitfalls to avoid. It’s true that tangible perks can lure new hires, but without an established culture that defines the character of a company, that new hire might not be so impressed to work there after the initial excitement of an onsite kegerator and free housekeeping wears off. The best way to hire based on so-called ‘culture fit’ is communicating the culture by reflecting your values through your actions. It is imperative that everyone, especially those involved in the hiring process have a good grasp of the culture and how to evaluate for culture fit without discriminating.
Every once in awhile I spot a cookie-cutter culture, that is to say, a company that has been founded on the basis of ‘everyone here is awesome – and we’re all alike’. You may indeed be awesome and have a profitable business but eventually a lack of diversity is going to be an issue in the face of growth, an impending IPO, or when you hit that innovation wall. That said, culture fit can’t be ignored either. It’s important to keep in mind that you can share the same values with people different from you. Coworkers can surely be a good cultural fit in a company and share the same values without having to be the same age, color, gender, size, or having the same education and experience. It’s great to see coworkers who enjoy each other’s company but diversity is one of those secret ingredients that lend a fresh perspective.
The real trouble is, many companies believe that hiring for cultural fit translates to finding someone just like all the other employees. This is a lazy way to focus on culture. Let’s take a step back and think about what is wrong with this reasoning. When I ask people to tell me about their culture, I sometimes receive a litany of events the company hosts or how well-stocked the kitchen is. I push and ask them to describe the company values. Many can’t answer this question and express concern that this is really what their culture is missing: the ability to articulate their identity. Then I ask them what their companies are doing to communicate their values. The result is inconsistency and an overall feeling of disjointed leadership. For companies struggling with product hiccups, high turnover, and public image blunders, the culprit may be a culture that is not sustainable. Pay attention to your culture alongside the growth of your business and it will pay off in the long run.
Culture wasn’t built in a day – whether a growing company is defining its culture or an established company is redefining its culture – the important thing to remember is that workplace culture consists of the values, people and communication of a company; essentially, it forms a community that thrives on the participation of all parties.