Your Company's Culture. Are You Winging it?

by our Leadership Champions Jane Warren and Bob Tomes

“It’s just the two of us right now. We’re on the same page with what we want and why we’re going down this road. We want the same things. We love working together and enjoy each other’s company. And we’re both super excited by the possibilities we can see.”

It's the most exciting and possibility laden phase of your organization's growth. You're dreaming and planning for a future you're going to impact. But as a startup grows, that easy, early culture may not grow along with you unless it's deeply understood.

So what actually are those things that you want the same of? What matters most to each of you in coming to this endeavour? What behaviours do you hold as most vital to your individual and collective definition of success?

This early stage of a start up’s journey is the highest leverage point for ensuring you create a culture that will allow you and your nascent organisation to thrive. And it is the point in a start up’s development that culture is most often taken for granted.

“Now we need to partner with someone else or consider investor choices or hire our first employee. Hang on, what did we say was most important here? I know that potential partner has experience we don’t, or that investor is offering us money, or that applicant has extensive experience in this role - but do they want the same things we do? Oh, well, they look good to me!”

This is the point at which a start up’s culture can start to go sideways. The speed you’re trying to move at, the need for money/talent/experience, your belief that you both do indeed want the same things and hold the same priorities - this is where your culture starts to zig-zag.

“Wow this partner has the chops but their win-lose attitude is hard to take. We’ve taken this investor’s money but now they’re demanding _____ which we don’t see as important. Great person we’ve hired, fun to have beers with, but wow that big corporate only approach feels awfully heavy and bureaucratic.”

And so it goes from there. You find yourself 2 years and 40 people down the road, spending your energy making too many decisions, refereeing too much conflict and producing results that don’t come close to matching up against those initial projections.

Culture is as simple (and as complex) as “how we do things around here”.

  1. What matters most?

  2. What impact are we wanting to create?

  3. What can we count on each other for along the way?

  4. And what behaviors do the answers to those three questions demand?

Culture will be created whether you consciously answer those questions or just let it happen. Every organization, big or small, has a culture. The choice is between consciously creating and nurturing it from the beginning or letting it create itself and then trying to retrofit later. While retrofitting a culture is possible, it’s considerably more painful, time consuming and usually only partially effective.

Defining the culture you are creating does not have to be a massive undertaking, if it’s done early, kept front and centre, reviewed regularly and lived to faithfully.

Even if it’s just the two of you right now (even if it’s just you!) answer those four questions above, put the answers somewhere that everyone can see them and be constantly reminded of their importance. Use them to cross check your decisions of partners, investors, employees, initiatives, directions. And evolve them, add nuance, learn as you go.

And never take your culture for granted.