When veteran investor, Peter Thiel walked into the Airbnb office in 2012, he had one piece of advice for the fresh-faced Silicon Valley darlings. “Don’t f*ck up the culture!” he told Brian Chesky, Airbnb co-founder.
Brian had asked Peter for his “single most important advice”. The revered investor’s response to this millennial-led startup wasn’t for them to judiciously spend the $150 million he had just given them in their series C, but to keep with the culture.
This underpins the importance of a solid company culture over anything else. The culture is the foundation for a company’s claim at innovation and growth. To break the culture is to throw a gravel in the heart of your well-oiled startup machine.
Startups have the luxury of building values and culture from scratch. It’s not easy to change an ingrained culture. If you are reading this as you start your business, it’s great, because the earlier culture is set, the better. Read on to learn how to tease out what your culture is and how to ingrain it into your workforce.
1. Settle on what kind of company you want
Believe it or not, your company culture is an extension of your temperament. If your personality is the kind that keeps people on a short leash, it’s possible that your company will be populated by unimaginative order-takers, unless you make it a conscious effort to go in the opposite direction
You need to decide whether you want a company where ideas flow freely or one where ideas are snuffed out at birth.
Decide what type of organization you want and work backward from there.
2. Assess your values and document them
As a follow on to the first step, attempt to tease out what your existing culture is. A good way to do this is having every member of your team write down what they think are your company values.
A company culture is simply an aggregate of your values, beliefs, stories, heroes and rituals. The values are the set of philosophies that guide everything your company does. It forms a chunk of the culture. The remaining; stories, heroes, and rituals are a reflection of that philosophy.
Aggregate the submissions of your team members, write them down, think through what matches reality and add other values that are desired but were not listed by any employee.
Discuss these values, make them relatable and put them up where everyone can see them.
If your values are “experimentation”, “simplicity” and “wild honesty”, then aggregate them and put them up on a big wall.
3. Create traditions that reinforce your values
During World War II, it was the Japanese soldiers who died in action that got medals of Honor, not the survivors. What this did for that infamous army was that everyone fought to the death.
Japanese soldiers were known to run into colonies of Marine corps and let bombs rip while screaming banzai. Dying for the emperor became the ultimate ideal for the soldier. That was so because the culture celebrated such sacrifices.
Remember the bit about stories, heroes and rituals?
Those three are mirrors that serve to reinforce your values. Sharing stories of employees who have thrived at experimenting, venerating those who have helped simplify your processes, and initiating an infrastructure that encourages openness will transfer your values from words on the wall to attainable ideals.
Surely, your tradition doesn’t involve people blowing themselves up for the sake of your company. That’s not a hot idea in 2016. But the same recipes apply – creating traditions that celebrate the values will make your employees aspire to them.
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4. Focus on team, not talent
War is a team sport, so is business. The team always trumps talent. A sizeable chunk of startups don’t know this and spend time and money worshiping a talent. Your employee stack needs to be a team of people who can coalesce around a problem, support one another and come up with solutions that would not have been achievable by one person.
Create an environment that encourages team activities. Let departments spend time together outside of work. Encourage humor and celebrate departments when they hit milestones.
5. Build trust and mutual respect
Trust is the single most important component in creating cohesion. Each member of your team needs to trust that the other member has their back, and your team needs to trust that you have their backs. A good place to start is keeping your promises and being consistent in your relationships.
While the Japs were fighting a suicidal war for their emperor during World War II, the US Marines who were left alone to fight them in the Pacific islands fought for something else – their comrades.
Their bond was based on trust and it was so strong that another marine will stand between his comrade and enemy fire. Let employees understand the dignity of every team member, and watch ideas flow, leading to innovation.
6. Give employees a long line with failure
If your culture espouses innovation, then failure would not be a stranger.
Elon Musk famously said, “if things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” To encourage innovation, let employees fail without feeling like a failure.
Help them see the progress they’ve made in their attempt to innovate and have them focus on that progress as they prepare to take another stab at the challenge.
This freedom will make creativity possible and things will ultimately correct themselves.
7. Celebrate the team
Be comfortable leaving the spotlight once in a while. Give your team members a mention when talking to the press. Celebrate them and remind them they are part of the process. Nothing is worse than when a founder who hogs all the attention.
Culture often grows naturally, but creating a culture that wins takes intentional planning of individual values and reinforcing them. After you’ve worked all the steps above and found the culture you desire, don’t let go.
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