Chapter 8: Culture
(Draft of John's new book: Your comments are welcome)
New enterprises are living organisms, each distinguished by its unique company culture. Each is unlike others, no two are the same. Each embodies the values of the company’s people, especially the founders and early employees. Serial entrepreneurs pay close attention to the crafting, construction and nurturing of the culture of their startups. Culture comes from the Latin cultura stemming from colere, meaning "to cultivate". Experienced startup people see culture as needing constant time and attention so it can be cultivated as they scramble each day to continue building the startup bicycle they are riding.
Culture distinguishes your startup. “Google is not a business, it is a culture” is what I was told by an early employee. “We are unique” was proclaimed by AOL people. I had heard the same pronouncement by people in Apple and Cisco. It is so pronounced that it has become a mantra for entrepreneurs.
Culture attracts the right people and rejects others. It makes recruiting more productive. Startups use team interviews to screen for culture. “She fits, but he does not” is what is decided at the end of the day’s interviews. “He has the right chemistry” is a declaration of cultural acceptance. The rest are rejected. Rejects can be well equipped with the skills needed, but are not offered jobs because they do not fit that company’s culture. They look for a better cultural fit at other companies. Finding people that fit your company culture is a serious part of interviewing that is mandatory for your recruiting process.
Culture sets the scoreboard for praise and admonition. The cheers and jeers are determined by what the culture values. It may be cold logic or hot intuition. Or innovation may supersede administrative excellence. Delivery on time may be ignored while breakthroughs are revered. The first time CEO that misses those criteria will suffer badly as the culture turns on him or mutinies.
Culture motivates people. They are eager to “go to work on Monday morning.” In fact, they may have continued working all day Saturday at home because they were having so much fun or wanted to see if they were up to the impossible challenge that popped up last Friday. Inherent in culture is the emotional stimulation that drives people to do amazing things. Pride and humility are defined by the culture. So is defeat.
Culture makes clear what is safe and dangerous. People quickly learn when to take large risks and when to be more cautious. Culture signals how to attempt something dangerous. It warns when to throttle back and cruise for a while. It tells people what to say in meetings when superiors and customers are present.
Culture defines ethics. Honesty and integrity are emphasized by some cultures. In others it is assumed. Clever tricks are revered by some. Others despise such acts. Openness is required by some groups. Discretion about sensitive subjects marks others. Employees need to know ethical boundaries in order to adjust their behavior.