What is culture?
Admit it: we throw the word around way too much. Most companies claim great culture and want to work towards great culture. This is especially true in the yogurt industry. But what actually is it? If you close your eyes and imagine working at a company that has this great culture, what do you see? Is it massages, free drinks, and a laundry service, or is it a group of exceptionally talented people working intensely? Is it both? Is it both with Nerf guns?
When searching on Google to try and find a good definition of company culture, I was overwhelmed by the variety of different articles, and I appreciate the deep irony of producing yet another one.
Culture, in a sense, has parallels with meditation practice and the path to enlightenment. By bringing people into the company and pointing them at a compelling vision of what could be achieved, thousands of positive daily actions make culture emerge. You can’t purchase culture or be too heavy-handed in shaping it: doing so can have an inverse effect. If I was to throw a quote into the mix, I’d probably highlight Confucius, although his wording is a little bit mean. Believe it or not, that quote wasn’t coined by Bruce Lee, but his delivery was kinder.
Culture in technology companies
Since the late 1990’s, a variety of technology companies have had prominence in the press by being providers of reportedly exceptional places to work. If you did actually close your eyes two paragraphs ago and imagine a place with great culture, then it was likely that you incorporated elements of what you had seen or heard about the big tech companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook. On one hand, this is great: why wouldn’t people want to be catered for at work? Yet, some of the press has, for better or worse, portrayed this in a negative way, and the comments sections of these articles are stuffed full of snide remarks about spoiled workers with access to three meals a day and zany meditation pods.
It’s not all about perks, though. Culture is predominantly an externalization what is deemed important to the company. On the contrary to the provision of copious amounts of free stuff, early public exposure of Amazon’s culture showed how committed it was to passing savings on to the customer: employees would build their desks out of old pieces of wood such as doors. Zappos has made headlines countless times with their holacracy ethos; a bold statement that multiple layers of management is not cool.
If you have recently interviewed at a youthful technology company, then it’s likely upon visiting the office that you could have seen markers of how early movers like Google have moved the cultural norm forward: bright colors and fun interiors, table tennis tables, foosball, free soft drinks, and snacks. There’s more of that today. But don’t let this fool you.
Perks are not culture
Let’s get this straight: perks are definitely not culture. It is not complicated to ring-fence some money in a company budget and get a weekly supermarket shop delivered to fill the cupboards. It’s also straightforward to spend some cash on a foosball table to show that you’ve ticked the box. However, a company providing nice perks may still be extremely dysfunctional. In the same way that a couple who have unfathomable wealth can still separate, there are other, much more important, factors that make a company culture strong, and they are fostered from within.
Culture emerges from the consistent quality of the decisions and interactions of individuals, teams, and departments at the company. At the core of the culture is the vision of the senior management for what should be achieved: why does the company exist, and how is it going to serve its customers? What will be its ding in the universe? This defines the direction that the company is going in and should be exciting enough to pull staff through bad times: they know that hope is on the horizon and that they are making a real difference to the world.
Vision and purpose
A company with fantastic people but with no direction would be subject to luck when defining its reason for being, and in turn, in choosing which customers it needs to serve. It could be an interesting experiment, but a company should have a purpose under which its staff can unite. It defines the products that the engineering department should be building and ensures that they are what the salespeople at the periphery need in their armory to beat the competition. Regardless of size, there should be a vision: a start-up may want to use technology to disrupt a market that is in dire need of innovation, and a public company may want to dominate the market and provide the best return on investment for its shareholders. Both are equally valid and can be used as a point of reference for making decisions.
A detailed guide on how to create a vision for a company goes way beyond the scope of this article, and potentially this site: those wanting to become, or learn more about, being an engineering manager are (potentially) less likely to be defining the company vision (unless you’re a CTO). However, it is everyone’s duty to question upwards for clarity on where the company is going and why. The best visions are not primarily about making money. If the company does something truly interesting and innovative, it will make money by proxy; focusing entirely on making money can drive short-term, risk-averse thinking and stifle innovation.
With a vision defined, and therefore actions being clear and reasoned, culture emerges from interactions: those between those who work together within the company and those between the company and the outside world. As a manager, you need to make sure that you yourself perform your own interactions in congruence with the greater purpose.
Relationships within the company
Hundreds of individuals make thousands of small decisions and interactions that in turn define the direction that the company travels. Should I raise that issue to my manager? Should we build this feature or that feature? Should I give her two days off in lieu for all of the work that she put in at the weekend? Should I be direct and say that I think his behavior is inappropriate?
These decisions along the overall trajectory, especially those grounded in the way that staff support and challenge each other, make the company culture emerge. This is why Radical Candor resonated with me: each interaction between an individual, if both caring and challenging, promotes a healthy culture within a company where each employee pushes each other forwards in a supportive manner. This, in turn, drives a culture of open communication because of the inherent trust. Those who carry each other, care deeply and drive performance become an example of how that company operates, regardless of exactly what the company is building.
When individuals do not challenge each other enough, the resulting culture can cause a company to drift. Nobody feels accountable to deliver, output can wane and the company can become susceptible to increasing threat from competition. When individuals do not care enough about each other, toxic interactions ruin culture. When individuals don’t respect, support and push each other forward, then politics can rule: individuals try to mark territory and form protection around themselves, and can potentially oust others for their own self-gain. This isn’t harmonious with progress; it’s protectionist, and again, the energy spent on these activities is energy not spent succeeding for the benefit of all.
Relationships with the outside world
The culture created from the relationships between individuals is not bounded within the organizational structure of the company: it radiates outwards in any interactions that staff have with the outside world. These interactions can be completely informal, such as networking at an event or posting on Twitter, yet carry through to the formalities of sales pitches and trying to raise VC capital. If the company has an excellent culture, then it is self-evident in interactions with staff that work there. A company with a cut-throat internal culture may be more likely to have an aggressive demeanor in the marketplace, especially when pitching against competitors. More negativity is at stake for the individual if they lose. I’ve seen some particularly dirty sales tactics in my time: the worst being total and utter lies to get contracts signed. Often we’re not surprised when we discover which companies this behavior comes from because you can decipher the culture from their marketplace presence and actions.
In fact, thinking about the processes that need to occur for companies to have a strong culture, you can see how important it is to hire and train the right people. Those that have worked on developing themselves, in turn, develop each other, which develops the culture of the company as a whole. There are no shortcuts.
Culture is precious, and it emerges through daily interactions between individuals, socially and professionally. Everyone has a part in defining good culture; from senior management creating and broadcasting the vision, to individual managers and peers caring for each other and driving high performance, to the interface between the company and the outside world through those that work there. It cannot be bought or faked; the seed must be planted and it will grow with time. Think about the culture of your own company and how it came about. Who do you think is responsible for it? What could you do to make it better?