Why Culture Matters For Startups -Forbes’ Murray Newlands Interviews Culture Influencer Cosmin Gheorghe

NOTE: This is NOT my story, but ABOUT my work — an interview I gave to Forbes’ contributor Murray Newlands.

Every day you are influenced by home and even work culture, whether you realize it or not. Culture, after all, has a huge impact on our views, values, desires, and worries as both individuals and members of a larger community.

Since culture also connects us with others, it makes sense that businesses give a lot of thought into the culture of their company. Remember, culture drives the value of a company from beginning to end. And that’s why entrepreneurs need to consider using culture to steer their start-up in the right direction. Take recruiting new team members, for example. Hiring someone who doesn’t fit into your workplace culture can affect everything from morale, productivity, and even the bottom line. In today’s hyper competitive job market, when job seekers have many sites, like Glassdoor, that enable prospective staff to find whether or not they would want to join your company culture. For both you as the business owner and them as the employee, this can make or break your company. If company culture isn’t up to par, how are you going to get the top tier staff to run it?

Furthermore, thanks to technology and globalization, it’s even more important than ever to be cognizant of the various cultures your business will interact with. You wouldn’t wouldn’t want to expand into a new market and offend your prospective customers through potentially culturally insensitive ads.

Which is why brands ranging from Google, the United Nations, and BMW have been incorporating “cultural intelligence” in their work. Cultural intelligence (CQ) simply provides you with the ability to interact optimally with a culture. Individuals and organizations can increase CQ by assessing the following four capabilities; CQ Drive, CQ Knowledge, CQ Strategy, and CQ Action.

Following the collapse of Communism in his native Romania in 1993, Cosmin Gheorghe first began working with what he calls “cultural and social systems”. His fascination with the human mind, behavior, and relationships lead him to earn a degree in psychology. He has since worked to help organizations understand and adjust their company culture so they can increase employee interaction, job performance, gain a competitive edge, and reduce employee turnover.

I recently picked Gheorghe’s brain about the importance of culture and how your startup can become “culturally intelligent”.

It seems there is quite a bit of talk about culture lately, especially within the entrepreneurs and tech ecosystem. Why do you think there is suddenly such a widespread interest in the concept of culture?

Gheorghe: The immediate answer is very simple: nobody can escape culture. I believe that people are becoming fully aware of this impossibility, so naturally they are now focusing on how to cope with it — although, coping is not the way to go.


What do you mean by that?

Gheorghe: Let’s suppose for a moment you decide you don’t want to have anything to do with culture. In that precise moment you have already subscribed to a new culture: The Culture of Those Who Don’t Want to Have Anything to Do With Culture. So it’s practically impossible to not be part of not only one, but several cultures.

You talk about several types of cultures, what, then, is your definition of culture?

Gheorghe: There is a more broad definition, which applies to any culture: the customs, behaviors and achievements of a particular group of people. Most people use the word culture to refer to the organizational (work) culture or to national (and/or ethnic) cultures. These are the main focuses of my work, together with the customers culture.

Speaking of your work, what is a Culture Influencer?

Gheorghe: Exactly what it says: an individual who has training, skills, and solid experience helping a culture achieve its full potential. For example, building or optimizing a company culture that involves (to begin with) creating awareness of the interactions within that culture, of the unspoken norms, values, “rituals”, etc. Almost all my clients have employees from all over the world — most of whom are expats. So in addition to the company culture, I also assess and measure individual cultural values in order to determine how they can be optimally integrated into the company culture.

Of course, Culture Influencer is an emerging profession and it requires the integration of knowledge from multiple disciplines, like psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, analytics, and artificial intelligence. Technology and globalization have become so complex that we can no longer afford to get our knowledge and skills from only one discipline.

Why do you consider cultural values so important?


Gheorghe: Because I believe that culture with its values and habits seriously influence — and often determine — our choices, decisions, emotions, and behaviors. Think about this; as a child you are taken out by your parents to McDonald’s, where you eat these things called “chicken nuggets,” colorfully packaged under the label “Happy Meal,” which always comes with a surprise toy. You already have here very powerful cultural imprints that are effectively branded on you, since they are associated with specific smells, images, and emotions — that’s why they are called “brands”, right?

These are all values that correspond to a specific culture, they are dictated simultaneously by and to that culture. They determine the way we relate to each other as human beings, as well as the way we relate to products and services. And conversely, the way we relate to other people, objects and services will feed back into our behavior and belief system.

So you are saying that we are “controlled” by these values?

Gheorghe: Not exactly. What I am saying is sometimes we are not aware that the way we “choose” to behave is determined by the way we see the world. Which is in turn determined by certain cultural values and beliefs acquired at a time when our intellect was not yet developed — mainly in the first 10 years of life.

Just to give an example, some cultures value “doing” (individual independence) and achievement, whereas other cultures value more “being” (loyalty and togetherness). As you can imagine, growing up in these different cultures will wire your brain differently and will equip you with different behaviors and emotions when confronting the same situation. This is why Culture is called the Software of the Mind. Each culture has its own specific software, and when you want to gather people from all over the world in the same company, you want to make sure that the software of their minds are optimized to function together for the best possible outcome.

The same is true when a company opens a branch in a different country. You want to make sure you send the right people and choose the right local collaborators — based on culture software compatibility. And the same happens with a product or service. You want to understand how to create and maintain the “right” customer culture.

How do you figure out what a certain culture is about?

Gheorghe: I use culture metrics and culture analytics. There are certain variables that I assess (at an individual and team level), including communication, perception of, and attitude toward hierarchy, power, uncertainty, individual needs, and several more. Of course, these are not performance evaluations, they are just tools, data that I use in order to deliver the most efficient recommendations, training or coaching, using the least possible resources of that organization or individual.


How important is it for a CEO to pay attention to the company culture?

Gheorghe: It is not important, it is actually crucial and urgent. And it’s not me who says that, it’s the research that shows it. In fact, it is the CEOs and the HR departments themselves who say it. In their 2015 report on Global Human Capital Trends, Deloitte research shows that “Business leaders gave HR a D-plus (an average of 1.32 on a five-point scale), while HR departments themselves “rated their teams the equivalent of a C-minus (an average of 1.65 on a five-point scale)”. The same report identifies that “culture and engagement and global leadership have become now urgent priorities,” while “the gap between readiness and need for improvement is actually widening”.

So optimizing (or in the case of startups, building) the company culture has to be one of the high priorities of any C-level executive. I would suggest an important issue is the way they select their HR team. No offense, but most HR leaders have almost no people skills and knowledge — although lately everybody brags about being “people oriented”. Many simply do not have the adequate training to understand how humans relate and connect, but relationships and connections are the basis of any culture.

For so many years HR has been about manipulating employees in a carrot and stick fashion — which is great if you want to have a Culture of Carrots & Sticks. But if you want to have a company culture where each individual’s qualities are integrated and celebrated, that requires a totally different set of skills. Of course, it is also a lot more work than shepherding a herd, but again, it depends what kind of company culture one wants.

What is the future of culture?

Gheorghe: As bright as it could be, although some stuff will shift around as Artificial Intelligence and virtual reality are developing and becoming mainstream. David Goldsmith of NASA is working on a project related to Moon colonization. So, what kind of “Moon Culture” would you like to have? How do you select those who are going to be there? How do you make sure you optimize relationships between a group of people, all with their own values and beliefs, so that they function as well as possible on the Moon? And of course, in the short-term we have to make it work on the Earth. I believe that most people are in severe need of some sort of culture classes in order to be effective in an increasingly complex, globalized world.

Cultural development is definitely a field to keep an eye on. If you are going to have a great startup and a great team motivated to work with you, then you need to think about your company culture. When you are a small company it is easier to connect, but as you grow you will need to work hard at company culture to keep gaining the best possible employees and workplace.


Originally published by Murray Newlands at www.forbes.com on June 22, 2015.

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