How to Build Your First Culture Guidelines

Culture building: why no one cares about your slide deck.

When I was Head of R&D at another startup, the autonomy I had to experiment was awesome, my team was full of unicorns, misfits, and brilliant coders that all played amazingly together, and we built exciting, important things. As I ventured onwards to start my own company, I knew I wanted to re-create that unique dynamic and I’m at the place now in my own career where I have to be really intentional about hiring great people and getting the best out of the team that I already have. Because I’ve been around enough to understand that the people make the (work)place. The people make the product. So, the big question that’s constantly circulating in my head as a CEO is, “what can I do to make all that happen?”

And perhaps you’re there too.

Picture this. You’re finally doing what you always wanted to do. You and the people around you are building this product with the same bubbling energy, the same gut feeling that this is it’s time. And you’re at the point where you have to put words to that collective effort, you have to trim away old habits and start planting new ones. In short, you have to build a culture.

If you’re in the same boat as I am,

Here’s the stuff you already knew:

Here’s the stuff you don’t know (or at least, I didn’t):

Culture is not only about the PPP

Why culture? Why now?

If we chew on that for a moment, that the interest rate on culture debt is higher than the other kinds of things that keep us up at night, that’s motivation enough to start building on the culture zeitgeist, now. Because fixing culture takes time -- as it deals with the messiest aspects of human nature: our values, motivations, assumptions, preferences. The old adage is true here: prevention is better than cure.

In your position, you know that culture is supposedly going to make you or break you because you’ve read the widely circulated articles herehere, and read the ‘epic’ culture codes here. You know it’s the reason that talent walks in the door and the reason it walks out. Hell, you’ve experienced it yourself. It’s why you left whatever job you were at before here. If “culture” met “brand” on Tinder, it would be a swipe right every.single.time. You want to create a strong culture for the very simple reason that doing so makes work life beautiful because it makes things clear -- for you, for your team, for your investors, for the people who have any kind of stake in where your/their time goes. It saves headaches later in terms of new hires and questions of fit.

It deserves the same care and concern as the product guidelines, mission statement and problem statement that you’ve articulated because culture is to business as water is to fish --everywhere, all the time, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Bill Aulet - Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast:

"Culture happens whether you want it to or not. It is the DNA of the company and is in large part created by the founders — not by their words so much as their actions." 

It has effects on how you manage, who you manage, the communication and decision-making structures, all of which are at the backbone of the machine you’re building as a company.

What the f *expletive is culture?

For the start-up world, culture isn’t about what gets done, it’s about how and why things get done. The kicker about culture is this: most of it you can’t see. Perfect example of the 80-20 rule. 80% of culture lies below what’s visible.

Like this:

Most shoddy advice circulating on the internet is say "we get things done” and the artefacts -- the swag, juice, ping pong, Friday bars, great interiors -- but what drives the whole iceberg in motion, what makes up its majority, lies beneath in the “the way we really get things done”. The big stuff, the core values including the attitudes towards others, the notions of leadership/ownership, and approaches to decision making or problem solving are all down there. So that’s where we’re going now -- a real deep dive.

How: Drop the fluff and the buzz

So, how do you build something that you can't touch?

If the first rule is show don't tell. The second rule is do.

So you know you need a deck or a living document (show don’t tell) but the deck isn’t a testament. You need words AND actions (do, don’t show). You need to drop the fluff words like “excellent communication” and the tech buzz words like "delighting our customers” that don’t mean anything. You need to enable the behaviors you want to diffuse, you need to make decisions in the way you want others too, you need to do the work you want others to produce. You need to walk the talk.

Here’s 5 culture essentials we’re focusing on.   

Management style: How will you lead the company and what do you expect in others when they lead?   

Peer engagement: How do you expect people to engage with peers within the company.

Company Communication  How do you expect communication to flow within the company?

Workflow: How to handle work process within the company and how are decisions made?   

External: How do you expect the company to handle external factors e.g clients or how to act outside of the company's walls.

How to culture: A step-by-step guide

Defining your culture doesn’t have to be sexy or an “epic” battle cry. It just has to work, period. It has to strike a chord.

If you’ve been deterred by the task of defining your culture because you’ve got some fires to put out elsewhere, here’s a very simple and actionable how to.

1. First do some re-con. Then: Stop, Look, Listen

Be a fly on the wall. Take a look around you, have you noticed if people are too cautious or too careless? Are big decisions being communicated via email or slack or in meetings? How are employees solving problems and sharing what they’ve learned? How are difficulties expressed and to whom? Write what you see and hear.

2. Invite your fellow founders AND the “culture bearers” to the table

How to culture: A step-by-step

The next point is a big one: Don’t just preach to the choir. Get the inner circle/management AND the “culture bearers” sitting together, sparring. Culture bearers are the natural leaders, independent of their title. What they say has weight and others do as they do. Have them weigh and buy in because nothing guarantees more pushback than grandiose manifestos created in a vacuum.

As Reed Hashtings said of Netflix’s 124-slide culture deck:

It’s what we wish we had understood when we started. More than 100 people at Netflix have made major contributions to the deck, and we have more improvements coming.

3. Get those people in a room, in your office or go off-site wherever you feel inspired

4. Talk and debate it out. And get those ideas down

If you’re stuck and need some prompts, I’ve created a formula to sharpen the focus and guide the  conversation. Afterwards, you can distill these into more digestible and human messages to diffuse to the team.

We are { culture goal }, which means that we { behavior }.

The culture goal is the what - what do you want to be? What is the value or mission?

The behavior describes how you will achieve that culture goal.

When you’re sharing your doc, remember to explain the all important why.

For example:

Peer engagement: We are free under responsibility (culture goal), which means we take decisions ourselves about how we individually work best (behavior) because we respect your experience (why).

Workflow We are always employee first (culture goal), which means that we recognize our talent because without our employees, we don’t exist (why) .

5. Create a document, whether that’s a slide deck or a google doc, paper airplanes sent around the office, whatever  

6. Share it with the team but more importantly, DO IT. Do those exact things that are in your culture deck and only then can you get the posters

What we “duuoo” (wink)

As the CEO of a start-up, I’m often doing some mental gymnastics -- flying high in strategy and low, fighting fires on the ground. The culture we have at Duuoo is independent and horizontal in every way; I believe in letting my team figure it out for themselves, not micro-managing their every move, and radical (some might say uncomfortable) openness. We talk, fight, and solve it all, openly. Netflix has been praised for hiring only “fully formed adults” and treating their employees as such, but I like to think that we’ve always had that mentality at Duuoo and in a larger Scandinavian sense as well. We simply don’t hire people we have to police. We’re a close-knit, fun team and if there is something I’ve overlooked, we’ve built the trusting relationships such that they will tell me during our 1-on-1s.

I truly believe that engaged, meaningful, and relevant 1-on1s are the first pillar of the "Employees-First Culture".

In the end…

BIG organizational concepts that bring results in employee satisfaction/motivation like ‘Radical openness’, ‘workforce democracy, and “Employee First, Customer Second” boil down to a system of beliefs, attitudes, and artefacts -- in short, culture. If there are only 2 things you retain from this post, let them be that you must walk the talk AND the culture building process should be inclusive. No one cares about the slide decks if those values are not collaboratively defined. The ping pong tables seem a lot less attractive when the cogs of the organization are not working well together. So, do first, define after and then bust out the ping pong tables.   


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