Startup Lesson 29: Culture is built brick by brick

After attending Saddington‘s first Human Capital & Culture meetup this morning, and reading Lindsay‘s post of her experiences with the culture-first model, I want to paint a picture via a simple analogy of how any company’s culture is built, from the beginning.  The analogy is a brick house, and a company’s culture is built from the bottom up, but from the top down. Confused? Good. Here’s what I mean.

Like it or not, if you are a founder or early leader, you define the culture of the company, period.  You do this in one of two ways:

  1. Intentionally
  2. Not at all

As I wrote yesterday, if you don’t define your culture, the market will.  So ask yourself at this point, do you want to lead a place that you like or do you want to lead a business that is defined completely by external factors, happenstance, and coincidence?  Not many leaders will acquiesce to the latter, but many leaders take exactly that approach. They ignore the cultivation of a culture completely, and just let it form on its own.

So, assuming you’re not that leader who ignores the culture from day one, you are intentional about building culture. That’s where the analogy of the brick house comes in.  First, you lay the foundation. To hold up bricks, the foundation must be strong. Lindsay correctly stated this morning that mission and values are the first priority, hence, they are the foundation.  You have to define these. Nobody else can do that. Only you, the founder, the leader, the entrepreneur, can define what you want the values to be.

Lay the foundation.  Then you start adding bricks. Each and every tiny little nuance in the way you go about hiring, empowering, team-building, leading, etc., is a brick.  Here are a few examples.

  • What are your core values? 
  • What is your mission? 
  • Who are your customers and what are they like?
  • What type of organizational structure do you favor? ROWE? Holocracy? Traditional?
  • Are you process driven or people driven?
  • What is your client services philosophy, e.g., “the customer is always right”?
  • Do you micro-manage every employee or empower them to try, fail, and learn every day?
  • Do you have an open door policy, meaning anyone in the organization can come see you any time?
  • Do you and you alone make every hiring decision?
  • How do you reward success and learn from failure in the organization?

These are just the tiny tip of the ice berg, but each one of these, and every other characteristic that you, the leader, display as you hire and grow, is a brick in the building of your culture.

As you add more people, you naturally add more bricks, making the original wide open culture harder to maintain and cultivate. That’s why most of the time startup culture is temporary, and very difficult to maintain.

What are your bricks? Are you able or even willing to define the culture of your business?  If you don’t, someone else will.

What do you think about that?