02/19/14 | Uncategorized

What Is Culture?

The co-founder of Meebo (acquired by Google) on the three questions you need to answer to understand your startup’s culture.  

By Elaine Wherry (Co-founder & CXO, Meebo)

logo2-150x150-2-2A few months ago, I was talking with a leader of a team that had tripled that year. Everyone was thrilled with the company’s success and the growth was expected to continue. You could see how much they valued their employees by their designed space, ergonomic desks, stocked cafeteria, and curated libraries. However, I could also hear the anxiety of having been through an enormous growth spurt and feeling like their culture was changing.

When we think of company culture, we focus on what we can see and touch – the foosball tables, happy hours, and free lunches. But these are only artifacts, what our culture produces.* It’s much harder to pinpoint the root culture. But once we do, we can overcome that nagging worry, “What if we lose what’s made us unique and special?”

To understand culture, we have to look beyond the espresso machines and dog policies. To understand culture, you have to answer these three questions:

How Is Truth Defined?

The answer is surprising – it’s not numbers and metrics! For the police, truth comes from the law. For religion, truth comes from religious text or philosophies. And for a Japanese Geisha, truth comes from tradition.

But within for-profit and startup teams, truth comes from the market, which includes investors, paying users, and Wall Street. But the market is fickle and unfair. Leaders choose what to expose and shelter from their teams. Should a startup provide generous pay and perks in an unproven market? Should every deserving employee be promoted when it’s not necessary to the business? Should employees be notified about every market change at the risk of needless distraction? Companies manage these tradeoffs differently depending upon their missions and current markets.

Is Individual Trust Given or Earned?

Giving trust means believing individuals will make the best decisions if they’re given sufficient data and support. Teams that give trust will hire slower so they can vet whether the candidate has the skills necessary for significant responsibility and accountability on day one. This culture is likely to be more innovative yet chaotic.

Conversely, when individuals earn trust, leaders must outline specific tasks or quotas so individuals can prove themselves. It’s the leaders responsibility to translate strategy into concrete goals and leaders will be accountable if the team fails. The individuals who prove themselves continue with the team and those who don’t, may be let go. This culture is more predictable and easier to scale but at the risk of becoming bureaucratic.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Leaders have to decide what deserves attention so they can make long-term bets about the future: data, the market, or vision. Data helps model trends and make predictions. However, data is also a trailing indicator and not a guarantee of the future. The market tells us about immediate needs and problems but it only thinks in incremental solutions. Vision allows us to make long-term bets about the future but deciding who has the best vision (e.g. individuals vs. leaders, a visionary vs. a competition winner) can be contentious.

All sources have their strengths. A number-centric company might be better as a fast-follower of trends. A user-centric company might be better at customer support. And a vision-centric company might be innovative provided it has the resources and clarity to move forward.

All of the above influence our culture: how we set goals, our execution speed, how we hire, how the team makes important decisions, how we organize, how critical information is shared, and who is held accountable for success and failure. What we see and touch is likely an answer to one of these questions. For instance, free food can mean, 1) We provide healthy, organic lunches because we believe your well-being is critical to the company’s success, 2) We provide convenient food so you can be more productive, or 3) We provide communal food so everyone gets together as a team and collaborates.

Of course the company will change! People come and go. The birthday celebrations that made sense a year ago may not have the same impact as the company grows. But the culture can remain unique and special. If we’re conscious of our company’s priorities and values, we can retire the day-to-day practices that are ineffective while continuing to invest in those that help the team move forward.

* If you want to read more about organizational culture and especially artifacts, check out the work of Professor Edgar H. Schein.

Founders, how would you answer these three questions?

About the guest blogger: Elaine Wherry was co-founder and chief experience officer (CXO) for Meebo, which was acquired by Google in 2012. Prior to starting Meebo, Wherry worked at Synaptics as a Human Factors Researcher and later became the manager of Usability and Design. 

Image credit: Philippe Lewicki via Flickr




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