What follows are condensed notes on almost 20 years of working in tech. In that time I’ve worked with people and teams of different sizes, on different journeys, led by people with different leadership styles. I’ve seen some good, I’ve seen some bad. I’ve seen (and made) mistakes.
Based on these personal experiences, I’ve come to understand how fundamental the right combination of people, and how they work together, is to a company’s success.
What is Company Culture?
Company culture exists without anyone even having to try, whether you like it or not. When you throw people together to work on a problem, a culture is going to present itself. It’s an organic thing that takes on a life of its own. It is therefore affected by everyone you add, and take away.
Company culture is unique and specific to each company. Establishing and maintaining a “positive” one is hard, but worth the effort.
It is the responsibility of everyone to contribute to the kind of culture they want to be a part of. But, it is the responsibility of the company leadership to support and nurture that process over time.
The CEO’s most important job is to ensure the company maintains a positive culture, since every single aspect of how the company operates is touched by it.
What Company Culture Is Not.
It is not free lunches and snacks. It is not ping pong tables. It’s not bean bags. It is not kegerators. It is not branded t-shirts or hoodies. It is not artisanal coffee.
Don’t get me wrong. These things are nice. If they are a feature of your working environment, that is a privilege — one that a lot of people working in tech have come to expect. Whether things like these contribute to making people feel happy and productive in their work, I really can’t say.
But please don’t mistake these trappings for culture.
What are the things that characterise a positive company culture?
Openness. Trust. Respect. Collaboration. Empowerment. Responsibility. Communication. Diversity. Empathy. Spirit. Emotional Investment. Pride in work. Commitment to each other. Openness to criticism. And a lot more besides…
These are the kind of things that embody a positive company culture. One where people feel happy and productive in their work. Where the customer is both the end user of the product and the net beneficiary of the positive culture.
What are the things that characterise a negative company culture?
The opposite of everything above ☺
Any combination of these opposites will, over time, lead to a negative, toxic work environment and culture. People will be unhappy, unproductive, dissatisfied with their job, and maybe even their life. No one will want to work at the company. The product suffers, the customer’s become unhappy. Growth stalls, then falls.
Not a good outcome.
How can you create a positive culture?
If you are in a leadership role, then understanding that this is the most important part of your job is the first step. However, since every single employee has the power to directly affect a company’s culture (for better or worse) everyone has a role to play.
Positive company cultures are created and maintained by working hard and being committed to each other. By establishing, as a team, what values the group wants to be defined by. By understanding what principles will guide each interpersonal interaction. By defining the principles by which customers are treated. By committing to the tenet’s by which the product is built, sold and supported.
The whole company needs to collaborate in a meaningful way on what these values and principles are. All new team members need to be educated on the company values and principles, and real buy-in is required to ensure the sustainability and constant improvement of culture.
This might sound like how a cult, or maybe a religion is formed. But if members of the team are not fanatical about how the product is built, sold and supported, then what is the point of the company even existing?
Finally, cultural change doesn’t happen over night. You can’t simply email a group of people and say “Hey! Everybody! More culture, please!” It can be a long, challenging journey, but one made easier by having everyone on board.