I was an early employee and Chief People Officer of Carbon Black, a cybersecurity startup that grew from 100 to 1,200+ employees and went public in 2019. In that role, I was part of the rocketship startup growth experience and helped build a culture that was a critical part of our success through multiple stages of growth. Now, as the founder of Pivotal Moments and a Venture Partner at Companyon Ventures, I’m helping startup leaders build inspiring cultures that help companies increase productivity and morale, reduce employee churn, and win in the market.
As a founder CEO, there are a lot of moving parts to consider when setting up your company for success and it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. You need a purposeful vision with the right product/market fit, timing, and resources to help you scale. And although those operational aspects are incredibly important, there’s another major thing many people forget during their early stages: the need to establish an inspiring and lasting company culture.
What is company culture and why is it important?
Your company culture is the heart and soul of your business and impacts everything from how well you function and perform as a team, to how your company is perceived in the market. It’s the collective attitudes and behaviors of your people and the way the company operates both internally and with the outside world.
Getting it right is so important. Why? Because culture eats strategy for breakfast. Without this core element of your business strategy clearly established and well led, you will run into major friction down the road. For example, you could wind up with competing cultures within your company, culture drift or worse - having no culture at all. All three scenarios cause major employee morale and productivity drag, requiring management bandwidth to deal with these internal challenges rather than spending time focused on driving innovation and growth.
Also, another important element to think about is that in today’s hyper competitive talent market, managing your culture and your brand identity is really crucial. Either manage it or it manages you. Social media has enabled people to get a bird’s eye view into what it’s like to work at your company before they ever set foot (or a virtual foot) in it. With employee review sites like Glassdoor available, candidates can easily do their homework on companies and their culture before applying. What your employees say about your company matters, and can be a determining factor for whether you can hire and retain great people. Don’t leave it to chance.
Here are 5 steps to build your company culture
It all starts with the Founding CEO and Founding Team. In the seed stage, I recommend this core group spend the time to develop a bold, clear and inspiring vision of the culture they are trying to create and the legacy they want to leave behind. It doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, I believe the less fancy and the more memorable the better. Challenge yourself to capture the essence of your culture in five words or less and then define what those traits mean to you.
Here’s an example from Facebook:
Focus on Impact
Build Social Values
Next, talk to your early joiners and get input on your proposed guiding principles and values. See what resonates and what doesn’t. You never want to set a purely “top-down” approach. Instead, it’s crucial to involve your employees early in the process. Engagement is key.
If your team is really small as it usually is before an A round, talk to everyone. They will feel valued and recognized for all of what they can bring towards helping you build an awesome company. Plus, you need these varying perspectives to assess how well your envisioned culture truly aligns with the values, needs, and expectations of your greater employee population. This will reduce blinders. Hint: if diversity & inclusion is one of your guiding principles, walking the talk on this step is especially important. More on this later.
As you finalize the core elements of your desired company culture, you’ll need to establish the behaviors, recognition, rituals, and cues that will not only build the culture but sustain it. If you need help, Great Mondays provides resources and tools to do this.
After this step, regularly communicate and integrate your culture message throughout the organization. Here are a few suggestions to consider:
Talk about your company’s missions and values at the beginning of every “All Hands” meeting.
Tie back any employee or team recognition to your values and make it relevant for people.
Tell stories at every opportunity to celebrate, evangelize and reinforce the importance of your values in action. Storytelling is way more powerful than words on a wall.
Hire and Promote for It
Since the goal of creating your culture is about aligning your teams to work together as you grow, it’s essential that you hire and promote people who are interested in working together rather than climbing the ladder at everyone else’s expense. This is especially critical for any leadership hire. Nothing kills culture faster than a toxic leader.
When considering a candidate, you need to look beyond their resume and technical skills alone. It’s easy to focus on the set of companies the person has worked for and quickly determine that the person must be great because he/she was with XYZ company at the time of important scale prior to going public. Don’t fall into this trap.
Get clear on defining the behavioral profile you’re looking to hire and hire to it. Don’t assume the person is great just because they worked at a certain company at a certain time. Don’t compromise industry experience over behavioral fit. It’s never going to the right choice.
And, because you're human, you will make mistakes. If you’ve hired someone way out of line with your core principles, find the courage to fire that person. It’s always worth it in the long run, despite how painful it might be in the short run.
Your culture is only as good as the example you set. You need to walk the talk and actively live the values you’ve created. Not only should you hold yourself to a higher standard, but you need to hold others accountable too. If someone gets off track (yourself included), be ready to step in and help course correct the situation as soon as possible. This both protects the culture you’ve built and maintains trust with your employees.
Also, to reiterate and ingrain this, always find opportunities for “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s not enough to say your culture is one thing and expect it to stick. Instead, share real stories regularly to illustrate that specific value, behavior, etc.
Backing up your ideals with concrete examples is powerful. You won’t get it right every time, but getting it right most of the time is what matters.
A final thought
You might have the best ideas, services, or products in the world, but without a positive, connected community within your workforce, you’ll struggle to sustain growth. Your company can’t afford not to build and protect your company culture.
Founder CEOs are in an ideal situation to create their culture because they can build it from the start, saving you from a lot of turmoil, turnover, headaches, and toxic situations over time. It will be easier to build your company culture foundation right out of the gate than backtrack after.