In a previous post of mine I write about Why Culture Matters. This was back in 2011. My company PeoplePerHour was in a totally different stage back then, and so was I. As we’ve progressed and grown up I’ve reflected back on this post to compare the then and now.
In short, the more we grow, the more we mature, the more I’m convinced of the main thesis of that post: that if you get culture right, almost nothing else matters.
You may ask: really? That sounds too simplistic and bold. What about people? What about the product ? What about the market, processes, etc etc. What about all the other stuff business schools and books rant about?
First, lets not forget that culture cannot exist without people. Culture is the fabric that brings people together to do great things. So of course you cannot have a culture without people. And for culture to work you need like-minded people who are simply ‘on the same page’. Bonded by chemistry more than by hierarchy, roles and definitions.
Similarly, without a product you can’t have people either. So yes, product is the starting point of any business. You build a product, you amass a team, and then its about growth and scaling. THAT’s when culture becomes the key ingredient.
Why? Because it renders a whole host of things that are just impossible or too painful, time consuming to get right, almost obsolete. Like rules and processes. Like lists of do’s and dont’s. As a young business you will not have time to compose a thorough ‘how to’ manual for everyone to follow, and even if you did you wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) have the time to train everyone on them, and even if you did you would not be attracting or retaining the right people in the first place! Smart people operate much better in a climate where they know the overarching goal, they see the destination, but they’re given freedom as to how to get there.
The role of the leader
Defining the role of a great CEO or leader has and will remain a subject of much debate. The more I mature as a CEO I see my key responsibilities narrow down and crystallise to these 3 and these 3 alone.
- To hire the smartest people I can for each role
- To provide a clear vision and very clear & tangible goals (vision and gaols are different)
- To set the right culture for them to work together to get there.
If you do those 3 things right you almost don’t have to do anything else. Or in the very least you will have more leeway for all the other things you’ll get wrong. It’s very refreshing. You will find (as I did) transcending from managing to leading. From doing too many things yourself to just setting scene and the actors for them to get done without you. A great CEO as they say should make him/herself redundant just a little more every singe day. That’s a sign that you are doing those things listed above.
Often confused: vision is not the same as goals. Some CEOs think that a bold, magnetic vision is enough. Its enough only to get peoples appetite going. Its not enough to feed it. It’s enough to inspire people but inspiration is not enough. They need goals & targets that take you collectively closer to that vision. Vision is how you imagine the future to be and how you and your company are changing it. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of thinking that everyone can see what they can — they cannot. And thats a good thing! A world full of visionaries would mean nothing gets done. Its your job as an entrepreneur to translate how that vision manifests itself into reality by setting milestones along the way.
So in short, if you do that, and hire the smartest people you can who are like minded, culture will take care of everything else.
What is culture?
Culture itself can be a vague idea. For me culture comes down to practical things like: what you as a leader expect of people; when should they ask and when should they get on with things; what sort of ‘reasons’ for things not happening do you tolerate… Think about they way you are with your friends, spouse, or kids if you have any… If a kid misbehaves and you tolerate it that sets the tone for future action. If a friend is always late and you tolerate it, they will carry on being late. If you answer every little question that comes your way, you can be sure that more will come.
Culture therefor is not this abstract idea that lives up in the either. Its the collective behaviour of your team and it’s defined 100% by the tone the leader sets.
I will illustrate by reflecting on our culture at PeoplePerHour so its not just a vague concept.
- Brutal Honesty: I tell my team: I do not tolerate anything BUT brutal honesty. I cant stand ‘wishy-washiness’ and beating about the bush. I can smell BS from a mile and it makes me want to puke. So we have a very direct and outspoken culture, without fluff and waffle. Everyone in my company knows that waffle and BS doesn’t fly with me. It’s not for everyone. But for those who do fit in it amplifies results and cuts back on time wasting. And no doubt it stems from intolerance of anything other than brutal honesty
- Numbers, Numbers, Numbers: Similarly we have a culture around strong numeracy and measurement. We are all quite a numerical lot, and everything we do must be measured. I don’t tolerate people’s request for something unless its benefit can be quantified. I am allergic to pie in the sky kind of thinking thats not rooted in some form of ROI measurement. Hence that’s part of our culture. And again that’s probably my engineering background and obsession with knowing exactly what I get out of something I put in.
- Ownership & Accountability: We have a culture of accountability and ‘can-do’ attitude. Again. The tone is set by my lack of tolerance for‘reasons why something isn’t done’. I’m astonished how common this is in other companies. They foster a culture of ‘effort matters’. It doesn’t! Life does not reward you for effort: not in sport, not in the arts and not in business. You dont make it to the Olympics juts because you tried! You make it because you achieved a good enough result. Anyone who’s worked with me will know that when they come to me with a laundry list of why something didn’t happen (even though they tried hard) they well get shot down. Brutally and openly . Often humiliatingly. Is it right? I don’t really care. It’s irrelevant. Its how I do things and it sets the tone and expectation for the whole team. Come to me with results, and why things DID happen or WILL happen (at worst). I hire smart people and so I expect more than excuses from them. Otherwise i may as well hire gibbons and pay less.
- Less is more: We have a culture succinctness, snappiness getting to the point. I joke about the ‘3 lines rule’ : that if an email doesn’t get to the point within the first 3 lines i stop reading. It may be said half jokingly but its largely true. The result: people get to the point or get ignored. That avoids time wasting on long convoluted emails, memos, talks, presentation that have little substance in them
- Openness: everyone can and is encouraged to voice their ideas or concerns about something. Often this results in long team email trails, chat groups, and lengthy debate but, again, as people know that we also have a no BS, no fluff culture almost always these debates are for good cause and lead to something. It may be a new practice, a product feature, a new / team event, a new process… Its shows that people care more than just getting their own job done. They care about the overall outcome
- Humour: we tolerate and encourage people to laugh, say silly things and have fun while working. It wasn’t always like this, in the early days I think the company and team were too highly strung and intense. We weren’t having fun. Why ? Because I was too highly strung and intense. I probably still am compared to most people but compared to myself back then im now a Budhist monk on coolaid! Why ? Because the worst part is gone, the company is out of the red and whilst there are still many challenges a huge weight has been lifted off my chest knowing that come what may, unless we REALLY screw up, we will stay in business. And also because I’ve simply grown up! Again: the tone is set by you! If you are stressed, everyone else is stressd. If you crack a joke, and have fun others will too.
The list can go on and on. There is no definitive limit to what defines culture. It simply is the way you behave, its the way you do things, Its the things you do and you don’t do. If you have a tightly defined culture the litmus test is to ask yourself: would this (whatever ‘this’ may be) fly in the company? If the answer is a definitive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ then you have a tight culture. If it’s a ‘hmm not sure’ then you don’t.
Alas, with the right overarching vision and goals, with the right people culture is all that’s needed.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery