Don't f&%$ up the culture...

I originally wrote this post for the Founder Centric newsletter, which was sent to startup entrepreneurs who attended our Startup MBA weekend course.

One of the oft-quoted benefits for working for a startup is the ‘great culture’. But the ubiquitous Ping-Pong table and mini-fridge of beer found in so many startup offices do necessarily not equate with a strong company culture.

What does a strong company culture look like? It all comes down to values. Your company has a strong culture when your employees’ personal values are completely aligned with your company core values.

So, why are company values so important? 

Help you make better decisions

If you think about a decision that you make in your own life, you will find that you are always guided by your own personal values. The same applies for your company – having a set of values will make decision-making so much easier. 

When faced with a potential business opportunity (or threat), determining whether it aligns or conflicts with your company’s values gives you an insight that numbers alone can’t necessarily provide. Having a strong set of company values that everyone adheres to means that you are more open to making decisions that might be tough in the short term, but that ultimately will help you build a better business in the long term.

Keep entrepreneurship alive

You escaped your corporate life in part to get away from a top-down, systems-heavy way of working. Having a strong company culture means that you don’t risk bringing those old ways of working into your brand new shiny startup. 

With an explicit mutual understanding over values, the more engrained the trust is between team members, and the more likely it is that people can act independently and entrepreneurially rather than simply following rules and regulations. Entrepreneurship isn’t just the impetus to begin a startup, it is also the key to all further innovation and creative problem-solving within your company as it scales.

Create unique branding

Think of the companies that are universally loved – Apple, Ben and Jerry’s, Zappos, Innocent Smoothies etc. In every case, their company culture has become part of their branding, which in turn has resulted in huge consumer loyalty. Moreover, your company’s unique core values are impossible to replicate, which helps ward off the competition as well as differentiate your brand.

How do you create a set of company values?

Company values start with the personal values of the founder(s). Spend some time defining your own values; if there is more than one co-founder then do this individually before sharing and comparing your answers. Be honest with yourself and each other. In fact, this exercise might throw up some interesting points of disagreement that otherwise would have lain dormant. It’s easy to *think* that you are all on the same page, but you may find variances. Better to find out now, in the early stages, than later, when you’re heading up a company of 100+ employees.

Some questions to get you started on this process:

  • What are the values that are most important to you in life? 
  • Then, of these, which ones are most important in your company? 
  • Who do you enjoy working with?  What are their values?
  • Who do you actively avoid working with?  What values do they have or lack?

From here, you can begin to synthesise your company values. Chris Moody has developed a useful checklist that you can use as a litmus test for each value:

  • Is this aspect of the company important to our long-term success?
  • Does this aspect need to be maintained forever and is it sustainable?
  • Does this aspect apply to all areas of the company and to all employees?
  • Will establishing this aspect help us make important decisions in the future?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then you should either rework or discard the value in question.

Try and have no more than five values so that they are easily remembered.  Avoid generic words like ‘trust’ and ‘integrity’. These concepts are too broad which leaves them open to interpretation. What you need to try and do is distil the essence of that concept in a way that is unique to your company.  

How do you keep your company values alive?

  • Make sure everyone understands them.
  • Ensure that every company decision is put through the same filter: ‘does this decision abide by our company values’?  If not, then you are taking the wrong path!
  • Always act in accordance with the company values, and make sure that your company has the openness and trust so that you can call out others if they flout the values.
  • Constantly reinforce your values: make your hiring decisions based on them; consider putting them on your website or integrating them into your branding; make sure that all new employees are aware of them (if you’ve done your hiring process correctly then that should have already happened!).

The two tutorials about culture via How to Start a Startup are well worth listening to: Lecture 10: Culture and Lecture 11: Hiring and Culture II. To really delve deep into organisational culture and learn about the new paradigm of working, you might want to check out Frederic Laloux's book, "Reinventing Organisations".

As the 'founder of modern management' and organisational expert Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  In these exciting early days of starting your business and working on your strategy, make sure you don’t overlook defining your values and developing your company’s culture.