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“Company culture” is one of those nebulous terms that lots of people throw around but never really have a true definition of what it means. To paraphrase the famous Supreme Court quote it’s a “I know it when I see it” type thing. And probably more accurately, you know it when you don’t see it.
In the last three years, my company, StackPath, has not only launched, but has acquired six companies: each with its own culture, its own idiosyncrasies, its own identity. Six companies brought together while building a seventh. As you may expect, it did not always go smoothly and we’ve had some challenges throughout this process, but overall we have managed to build a culture that works.
Over the course of my more than 25-year career, I have seen amazing company cultures, abysmal company cultures, and an overwhelming number of companies whose culture was, well…. meh. And while there isn’t a single “right” way to create a positive culture for your company, there certainly are things you can do to help ensure it falls into the “meh” or abysmal category.
Here are just a few that will kill your startup’s culture. (Full Disclosure: I am guilty of making all of these mistakes….. in some cases, multiple times)
Believing that everyone views things the same way you do
For all of the (much needed) talk regarding diversity in tech, never lose site that diversity of thought is also essential. A healthy company has a myriad of differing opinions and ideas exchanged – respectfully, often and without fear. Ask your staff their thoughts and opinions and LISTEN to the answers. You don’t have to take all their advice, but to have a successful culture you do need to acknowledge and take different views into consideration.
A healthy company has a myriad of differing opinions and ideas exchanged – respectfully, often and without fear.
Assuming that employees are only after a paycheck
Employees aren’t just part of of your company, they are your company. While pay and perks are certainly important, humans crave to be part of a larger whole. Make your culture an inclusive tribe where everyone’s contribution, regardless of duties or title, is essential to the success of the group. You never know where a good idea where come from, and people should feel empowered to speak up and share thoughts.
Make your culture an inclusive tribe where everyone’s contribution, regardless of duties or title, is essential to the success of the group.
Isolating teams or creating silos
To that point, some of the best marketing ideas can come from engineers. That problem that’s stumped the dev team? A logical mind in accounting might be the one to solve it. While duties and responsibilities need to be defined, they shouldn’t be so rigid that is the only subset of the company a team sees. Collaboration not only breaks down walls, it gets shit done.
Collaboration not only breaks down walls, it gets shit done.
Lack of transparency
While at a previous company, I asked one of the managers how her particular department was doing. “Great!” of course was her enthusiastic reply. When I said “Good to hear. How are your revenue and margins doing compared to plan?” all I got was a blank stare. She had no idea. Not because she didn’t care, and certainly not because she wasn’t capable. She was abundantly capable. It was because “that type of information is only shared with upper management. To be honest, they don’t tell me what my plan is, only that I need to do better. I’m not even sure there is a plan”. Two things immediately stuck out: 1) We had a talented employee who wasn’t able to do her job to her full potential because information was being withheld from her and 2) “They”…. “They don’t tell me” Lack of transparency had created an “us and them” mentality as well as suspicion and stress. While there are times for discretion, share as much as you can with everyone. Open the books, let them know the good the bad and the ugly, share future plans and vision. It breeds trust and dedication.
(As a side note: Now several years later, the manager I mentioned above runs her own region of a Fortune 500 company, with hundreds of people in her organization. I guarantee if you asked any of them “How is it going?” they’d be able to go three levels deep on the region’s financial performance.)
While there are times for discretion, share as much as you can with everyone.
Falling into the “we’ve always done it that way” mental trap
There’s a story about a scientist putting a group of monkeys into an enclosure and hanging bananas from the ceiling. As one of the monkeys would start to scale up to get the bananas, the scientist would blast them all with cold water. It did not take long for the monkeys to become conditioned to leaving the bananas. When the scientist would substitute an existing monkey with a new monkey who didn’t know the rules, the new monkey would naturally go for the bananas, and once again the monkeys would get sprayed. This pattern of monkey substitution continued and, after a while, none of the original monkeys were even in the enclosure. But as soon as a new monkey came in, this group of monkeys would attack it before it did anything because they had learned that every time a new monkey came in they would get blasted with water. This can happen in a company as well. People often do things without knowing why because it’s “always been that way”. Even those who weren’t around when a process was established can become completely entrenched without even knowing why.
People often do things without knowing why because it’s “always been that way”
Thinking you can get by without process
While the “always has been done that way” can cripple a company culture, you do still need processes. Someone much smarter than me told me once “an idea without a business plan is just a hobby.” If there’s no process, it’s just chaos. It’s amazing how many startups have a genius idea, but no plan on how to get there. While it’s good to have a level of flexibility, simply winging it and a multitude of one-off exceptions will always come back to bite you.
Ultimately, company culture needs to be genuine. It needs to be you. A culture isn’t built on Taco Tuesdays or Thirsty Thursdays at the local bar (though I am a fan of both!), created by painting the walls of the break room a funky color, or having a foosball table next to the reception desk (if desired, you can read my thought on foosball here). Those might all be fun, but it is not culture. Culture is a feeling. It’s dedication to each other, dedication to the company, and dedication to the customer. You do those three things, while avoiding the items listed above, you are well on your way to a company culture that everyone in your company can be proud of.
Culture is a feeling. It’s dedication to each other, dedication to the company, and dedication to the customer.
James Leaverton is the Co-Founder and Vice President of Ecosystems at StackPath, which allows startups to secure and accelerate their websites, apps, APIs, media streams, and more with edge services on a platform built for cloud scale. During his time at StackPath, James has been integral in launching and acquiring six companies. Prior to StackPath, James ran managed services at Ricoh.