So you’ve heard a strong culture is key to building a great company? Ellen Leanse shares the how and why.

By Ellen Leanse (Tech Veteran, Investor & Entrepreneur)

logo2-150x1501-2Culture, it’s been said, is among the few things a CEO can’t delegate. It’s the glue that focuses a company on vision and purpose; the thing that connects the best teams and helps some companies hold while others fold.

But what is it? How do you get it? And does it merely “happen,” or can it be designed?

What Is Culture?

Thanks to Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky we have an excellent definition of culture as it applies to business: “Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.”

There’s so much in those simple words.

“A shared way.” The phrase implies a tribal knowledge held by a group, something that can be passed on to new participants. You can almost “feel” this knowledge. People are on the same page even when they’re not thinking about it: they know why they’re there. There’s a collective understanding, an agreement – explicit or implicit – that guides actions and decisions.

Having “a shared way” does more than move people in the same direction. It brings everyone in to the process of sustaining that way. It lets people contribute to, rather than dilute, culture – even as teams scale and grow.

“Of doing something.” That “something” is a focal point, or even a filter, that guides decision-making and prioritization. It’s a touchstone that employees can reference as a test in specific scenarios that gives context to their day-to-day actions.

“With passion.” I’m so glad Brian said this. The phrase implies a certain energy, engagement – a critical thing for knowing and attracting the right sorts of employees and creating the force field that moves business forward.

It suggests forward momentum and a certain delight in the experience, a resilience and courage when times get hard. The vision excites and inspires the team, reigniting their sense of meaning and fulfillment with the work.

Culture, to restate Brian’s definition, is a shared set of beliefs, motivations, and understandings that unify people to create change they care about. When shared, clearly understood, and fueled by meaning, it inspires them to sustain the work needed to create a desired impact, through good times and bad, over time and as reality changes.

How Do You Get It?

That, I confess, is a trick question.

Culture happens whether you design it or not. Think of a ship with no captain. It will drift and follow the tides, but not in a productive direction.

Even with the best captain, a ship will require ongoing course corrections. Fifty percent of navigation, I’ve heard, is course correction, and that seems true whether on the sea or in the workplace. Culture is that captain. But with or without it the ship is going to keep moving.

The problem is that most leaders are so busy getting all hands on deck and moving toward the destination that they don’t take the time to put the journey in context. Pointing toward a goal, they may inspire others to join in, but without a navigational guide – culture – the journey may become more about “where we’re going” than “why,” or even “how,” we are getting there.

It can’t be coincidence that some of our leading high-growth companies – Google, for example, as well as Starbucks and Facebook – prioritized that navigational map early in their history. A founder, or in the case of Starbucks, a visionary leader, a person close to the soul of the company stated what they were there to achieve. Early on, these statements galvanized the truth, defined the collective core of the early employees, and allowed the transmission of something lasting as the company grew.

“We’re worried about this next phase of growth,” an executive told me as he worked through his hiring plan after a big Series A. “I don’t know how we’re going to sustain the culture.” Asking more, I learned that his team saw culture as “the things they did” to create atmosphere and affinity.

But missing was the “why they did it” – the core beliefs and values that gave context to the “what they did” and actually provided a better litmus test to ensure real purpose to the various expressions that had previously masqueraded as culture.

Turns out the founders had written down a lot of the things they believed in – the fuel cell, if you will, of it all – back before they started building the product, and the team. The good news was they still felt a vibrant connection to those roots, even though they’d never surfaced them to others at the company.

With very little work, they were able to take those early thoughts and put them into a grounding philosophy. This became a critical tool for getting hiring managers on the same page with their vision, and for guiding existing employees to clarify and strengthen conviction in the mission they were there to achieve.

Suddenly, those things everyone was doing came into a new focus, shifting to a shared way of, well, doing something, and with passion. The excitement of the funding and the momentum of growth suddenly had a focus: everyone knew where their work was heading and how to separate the distractions from the work that delivered meaning.

You Can Do It Too

Getting from “here” to “culture” may sound daunting, but fear not: it can be done. I’ve seen shifts take place even in established companies, and in teams or business units that are part of larger organizations. Going back to that ship analogy, three concepts help:

  • State where you intend to go. Business is a journey, and somewhere in your business history someone said, “I want to get from here to there.” Wherever your company is in that journey, go back to that original spark and connect with the motivation that inspired your founding team. Even in businesses that change over time, something – really, always something – in that original vision will be relevant to the purpose of your company today. Reconnect with that, and put it into words that become part of your tribal knowledge, and watch what happens. Example: Starbucks. Note how the mission statement doesn’t even mention coffee. This article on “How to Create a Company Philosophy” helps, too.
  • Map your values. Put them into writing. I’ve seen “Ten Commandments,” “We Believe….” statements, manifestos, letters to the future, all kinds of mechanisms for sharing values and vision in a transmissible way. And bonus points (not to mention SEO wins) for companies who make these statements public. Search for “Zappos culture,” for example, and you find a page at the top of the search. How much more impressive it that hit you get for many other companies’ “culture” search results? Example: well, since we’ve already searched for it: Zappos.
  • Know how to know if you’re on course. Assume nothing. Culture isn’t “set and forget.” Talk about it. Ask about it. If you’re the leader, take that advice about “culture being one of the things a CEO can’t delegate” and create a setting where people can help you champion the culture by speaking honestly and openly about how to preserve it. “The opposite of ‘love’ isn’t ‘hate,’ it’s ‘indifference.” Indifference signals you’re off course. Encourage your teams to be passionate about your culture and you’ll be much more likely to sustain it. Example: Zappos again. Tony Hsieh discussing the feedback sparked him to write those core values.
  • All hands on deck. Make everyone a participant in sustaining your culture. Be transparent about the “map” when you interview candidates, and ask them what about their experience or nature makes them likely to sustain and add to the culture. Have managers refer to the culture when they do reviews, and include inquiries about culture in your 360s and peer reviews. “I’d rather have a hire who embodies our culture and can learn the skills,” a CEO recently told me, “than a person who has mastered the skills but won’t align with the culture.” Duly noted. Hire, grow, and sustain, as if everyone is a participant in building culture. They are. Example: Toyota’s “Zenjidoka” (which puts everyone in charge of quality standards).
  • Celebrate the journey as well as the rewards. What you do matters a lot. HOW you do it might matter even more. Throw the party and share the bonuses when your company reaches that critical milestone – but be sure you acknowledge the process as well. Doing things as a team and making tough choices because they align with a vision are as important as that 1,000th order or new funding. Remember that every company has times when the chips are down and external validation might be scarce.  Culture can sustain, and retain, during this time – and it offers the extra benefit of providing a framework for making the decisions implicit in surviving challenges. Example: Airbnb’s Checky who asserts “culture is a thousand things, a thousand times.”

What are you doing to ensure the you get culture right for your startup, your division, or even that company you’ve been running all these years? It’s never too late to solidify your culture (ask Tony Hsieh) and it’s certainly never too early. Lead with a core of values and celebrate the process, and you’ll be in great company with some of today’s most admired businesses no matter what kind of business you run.

Image credit: Myles Grant via Flickr.