Jordan Snyder

Leadership: Team & Company Culture

Why focusing on your culture is the best thing you can do.

Culture isn't just an ingrained set of rules, it's a structured system built on behaviors that people are expected to follow.

In "What You Do is Who You Are," Ben Horowitz talks about company culture and why it's so important. In this post, I'm going to review some of the principles he shares and how I interpret their meaning and importance.

Create shocking rules

The idea of creating shocking rules comes from countless examples of cultures that were transformed in this way. Touissant Louveture transformed people in Haiti who had been born as slaves into an organized, professional army of revolutionaries. These revolutionaries would go on to overthrow French and British slave trade and end slavery in Haiti forever.

Some key principles to keep in mind for creating shocking rules -

  • Make them memorable - create rules that are memorable and have an impact. Something that people are going to discuss. Many people may not like the rules. They shouldn't be cruel, confusing, or controlling, but radical enough to catch attention.
  • Make people ask "why?" - This is not about confusing people, it's about demonstrating cultural values through the rule. When people ask why, and it's made clear to them, the culture is further cemented into place.
  • Make them clear. Again, rules shouldn't be confusing.
  • Make rules that are encountered daily

Dress for Success

I took a Professional Development class in college, and I remember the professor telling us how important it was to dress well and look good all the time in the professional world. Since I had already been working as a software engineer and graphic designer in advertising and consulting since I was 16, I argued with the professor - my industry was more relaxed, and that was part of the culture. While it's true that the tech industry changed a lot about how people think about "professional work attire," it's still true that the way we dress reflects a lot about who we are, and has a profound effect on culture.
Dressing for success doesn't mean looking like a Gucci model at all times, but it does mean that you should dress for the culture you want. There's nothing wrong with being laid-back and relaxed, but you shouldn't dress sloppily or be ungroomed (unless you work in the outdoor industry, perhaps).

Be yourself, but however you dress, do it with purpose.

Be yourself at all times, but know your strengths and weaknesses.

Don't try to be someone you're not. People can see right through this, and it gives an impression of disingenuity, which is hard to respect. Being yourself doesn't mean that you can't change or improve, but that you are true to the core person that you are.

Follow a code of honor and maintain integrity

Horowitz reminds us of the Bushido code, an ancient ethical and moral code. The essence of bushido was defined by Saitō Chikamori as:

  • Sincerity - do not lie, do not be insincere, do not be superficial
  • Responsibility - do not be obsequious
  • Frugality - do not be greedy
  • Politeness - do not be rude, do not slander
  • Modesty - do not be boastful, do not be arrogant
  • Loyalty - do not be unfaithful
  • Harmony - be on good terms with comrades
  • Tranquility - do not be overly concerned with events
  • Compassion - show concern for one another, be compassionate, with a strong sense of duty.

Be specific about the virtues & ethics you want to see.

Saying that you want a culture of integrity can be too vague, even if it seems simple to you. Integrity means different things to different people, so be explicit about what behaviors you want to see that demonstrate your version of integrity.

Model the behavior you want to see - lead by example.

This should basically speak for itself, but we often lack the self-awareness to see how our behaviors might be encouraging a culture that we do not want to create. Be dedicated to modeling the values you truly want to see. This actually may be the most time-consuming part of creating culture, because it means you have to become the best version of yourself, to truly embody the ideals that are important to you. If you do that, it will be infectious, and you will gain respect of everyone you work with.

Make decisions that demonstrate priorities

This, like many of the principles, is also about congruence between what you say and what you do, but it applies more specifically to larger strategic initiatives that the company pursues.

Build the culture with the right people. Imagine your ideal employees, and look to hire those people.

  • Smart, with a desire to learn
  • Humble - stay focused and become the person people want to work with
  • Hardworking, competitive, determined
  • Collaborative - provide leadership and take responsibility

A few bad eggs can turn the culture upside down

When you're working really hard to develop and encourage certain cultural values, you have to watch out for people who are constantly undermining those values. If you allow that behavior to go unchecked, you're encouraging that behavior whether you like it or not. Be proactive and assertive in dealing with bad eggs in your company or team. Below are a few examples that Horowitz mentions.

  • The Heretic - looks for faults in the company and spreads it to others. These folks' behavior needs to be addressed immediately, and if they can't change their attitude, they have to go. This is one of the most toxic personalities you can have in a culture. People should be open and honest about when they see something wrong, but if their solution is to complain and encourage outrage, they're not interested in helping to solve the problem.
  • The Flake - smart but cannot be relied upon. We've all worked with someone like this, and perhaps we've done this ourselves. These folks can get things done, but they lack the discipline, focus, motivation, or willpower to do so.
  • The Jerk - terrible with communication, fails to accept criticism.
  • The Prophet of Rage - this person may be excellent at what they do, but they heavily utilize anger and outrage to get things done. Their behavior may work in small circles or short time frames, but it is not sustainable. This behavior uses shame & guilt to motivate, like a drill sergeant or football coach. While that can potentially get results in the short term, it leads to burnout and feelings of distrust and resentment.

The culture boils down to the people & their behaviors

See a pattern? A company is only as good as its culture, and a culture is only as good as its people and their actions. It's easy to see, but can be challenging to maintain. The principles provided above are a good starting point to having a great company or team culture.

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