In the early days of your startup, the culture that dictates how engaged your people will be and how successful you will be is being built whether you realize it or not.
Most often, it comes from the founders’ vision, passion, and personality. We don’t start companies because we want them to be like everyone else’s, we build our own because we know we can do it better.
Part of doing it better is creating the environment that fits your products, services, and ideals. Most tech companies stay far away from traditional corporate trappings and shoot for fun, flexibility, and creativity. Who wants it to feel like work when you’re at work?
Knowing what you don’t want your culture to be is very useful, but so is knowing what you do want it to be. Being intentional about what you stand for, what you value, and what really matters means first figuring out what that looks like, and then embedding it into everything you do.
That doesn’t mean a committee-led process of coming up with a list of core values so you can put a plaque on your wall. Or a variation of the Dilbert Automatic Mission Statement Generator (which is no longer online—too bad!). It means sitting down with the key people who drive the purpose and vision of what your company is today and what you most want it to be, and putting some specifics around it.
This isn’t vague ideas like "innovation" or "work hard/play hard." Those might represent important components of who you are, but they don’t help you make decisions. The values that are the foundation of your culture aren’t just the vibe of how it feels when you’re working together, they are what you stand for when things go south, what you use to make tough calls. What you’ll stand behind no matter what.
What really matters to you? What can’t you live without in how your people treat each other and your customers? Not a laundry list, just the three to four most important things. It’s brutally hard to narrow the list to only a few key values, but when you get into five or more no one can remember what they are and it’s no longer useful. If you have to, start with a larger list and keep taking one away until you’re down to less than five.
Some questions to help you narrow down who you are and who you aspire to be:
- What behavior is absolutely necessary for our long-term success?
- How do we want our people to feel every day—both our employees and customers?
- If we can only accomplish one thing in the world, what is it?
- When we have to make a tough decision what do we draw on, what ultimately helps us choose? If it doesn’t guide your actions, it isn’t core to who you are.
Once you know what you really stand for, the rest is easy. You talk about it, you act on it, you talk about it some more, you act on it again. You let people see you using it to make decisions. You use it to decide who to hire. You use it to decide who to fire, and for what. You embed it in everything you do.
If you can’t, then it’s not a key value, it’s not part of the foundation of your culture. When you get it right, it acts as a compass that guides everything you do, and it becomes the anchor of every people practice you have.