From Cult to Culture

Let me be bold and just come out with this, most start-ups are a cult. They grow into a culture. They are a cult of passionate, like-minded people going hell for leather to make something they believe in, often to the point of obsession. Their cult will be the basis of their culture. Scoby, pictured above sitting in the kombucha represents the cult, busy building culture for the future. Culture needs fermentation and perhaps in this context, the extent to which cultural change (off the back of business growth) is communicated plays a big role in how successfully it will grow. Kombucha lovers among us, y’all know that not all kombuchas are created equal, it’s the second ferment that makes it or breaks it, in my humble opinion!

‘How do we keep the company culture as we scale?’ Put your hand up if you have heard that a few (thousand) times? Many of us would acknowledge that humans can be adverse to change, so I can understand why there is a desire to maintain the cult culture, if you were an early member of a start-up then you’d be forgiven for being protective of what you helped build. The counter question that plays over in my mind is, what if it does change and is that such a bad thing? The culture you have with 5 people vs 50 people will not be exactly the same. Nor will it replicate identically across regions. Bringing in new people brings with it different ways of thinking and doing, it challenges the existing ways of working and in doing so it has the potential to positively impact a lot of things, including the culture. Growth will necessitate business and consequently cultural change, it is about being ready for it so it can be well navigated to keep the morale, if not completely buoyed, then mostly afloat!

Organisational culture is a big deal. Through its manifestations, it can help us decide whether we pursue, accept a role and even stay at a company. Among many considerations, it can dictate whether you opt in or opt out. However, I worry that we look to individuals whether they be the leaders, founders, long term employees or the people team (or a combination from any or all of those categories) to be the sole custodians of the culture. As if in some way it is something that needs protection or worse, enforcement. I worry we place too much responsibility on these people to be guardians that we risk putting pressure on or trying to — GULP — KPI culture!

What is culture anyway? Here are some pre-packaged summaries from Business Dictionary and Forbes. Here are some personal observations. I interpret culture as the soul of a company which is created by the people who come together to achieve a something that, for them, has purpose and meaning. Naturally, there are a whole subset of things that feed the culture beast like (disclaimer: this list is by no means comprehensive — I’d value further input):

  • Your company story and the story untold — the origins to the future, where we were and where we are going to.
  • What your company does and how they do it.
  • The values that are ‘on the wall’ and the values that are demonstrated.
  • The transparency of company activity.
  • The way/s people are recognised.
  • The unsaid standards and behaviours everyone adheres to.

Perhaps it serves us better to reframe the question. How do we help people understand so they remain engaged in our culture as it evolves? We look to leaders to set the tone and help us navigate change and rightly so. Quartz co-founder wrote a great piece about what they were doing to help grow through the cultural changes that emerged once they surpassed 150 people. However, I don’t think the answer is for us to rely squarely on leaders, founders or people teams, everyone must be responsible for the culture. While the founders and leaders made a big contribution to the culture, they have had many collaborators and you are among them. You are a living, breathing embodiment of that culture. With that comes responsibility which is two-fold. 1. You must question. 2. You must keep contributing. See something counter to the culture you bought into? Ask why, call it out the best way you know how. It could be a mere misinterpretation or it might be something more fundamental but wouldn’t you rather know either way and defend what you helped create? It is up to everyone to continually challenge and contribute and that is a role we can all play in maintaining, not necessarily the birth culture but an evolving culture that everyone can continue to be proud of. In a one line analogy — embrace the second ferment!