Chris Knight via Unplash

How Early Do You Need to Create Culture in Your Company?

Culture and values answer the question: “how do we behave?” Culture is created in how you act and what behaviors happen between and amongst those in the company. This is adapted from a conversation we often have when asked this question by founders.

Imagine you’re a one-person shop. As you’re doing all things solo, you’re living out a set of values for you and how you do things. As soon as you need to do something that’s bigger than you can do on your own, like when you start a company, you need to coordinate with somebody else. You say: “I’ll do this, you do that.” The more people that are added to the organizational mix, the number of interactions and exhibited behaviors grow exponentially. Being explicit about what values you live by can help you navigate the waters of human dynamics from the very beginning of your company.

Culture begins from the very first conversation deciding who is in what role. If you are going to raise money then it’s usually answering the question of who’s CEO? Let’s say you both decide that you are going to be CEO. Now, If you need something from your co-founder, how do you ask? Do you say, “Hey listen I’m gonna give you a list of things I need you to do and then hold you accountable if they are not done on time because I am CEO and it is my job to make sure things get done.” That’s not gonna end well. So you are going to need values to answer the question of how do we make requests of each other and how do we hold each other accountable. As soon as you have to coordinate with another person, there’s culture — how you do things, what behaviors happen. This includes how we communicate with one another.

At the outset of here are a few of the questions you will need to answer:

  • How do we make requests of each other?
  • How do we hold each other accountable?
  • How do we say yes and no to each other?
  • How do we push back?
  • How do we have healthy disagreements?
  • How do we express discomfort or dissatisfaction?
  • How do we give and receive feedback?
  • How do we want to praise, celebrate and high-five?
  • How do we make decisions?
  • How do we prioritize?
  • How do we hire? How do we fire?
  • How do we stay connected as we work?

As soon as you need another person to coordinate with, it helps to intentionally decide “How do you operate in your organization?” You’ll want to consider the ramifications of behaviors and the values you say you value. Ultimately, your values are what actually happens in your organization, it’s the behaviors that are the living expression of values, not the words on a slide or website, which determine what kind of culture you have.

Values directly answer the question: “how do we behave?”. You need to be able to visualize the behavior in action. People will often say, “trust is a value.” To get to the heart of this value, people need to know what trust means. Is there a specific aspect of trust that is getting attention? How do I behave with trust? Perhaps, it’s the context of care, the sincerity, the reliability, the competence, all described in behaviors we take in the organization. You get empty values when there’s a list of words on the wall that aren’t understood or embodied by the organization. Every value needs an explanation: “with this value present, that means when this happens we behave like this.”

For example, some companies value ”work hard, play hard.” But what does that mean, exactly? Does that mean that they happy hour every week at 5 p.m. on Friday? What happens when a big user request comes through at 5 p.m. during happy hour? Do they work hard or do they play hard? What you’re trying to answer with your values is “What are we committed to in that moment?” If “customers first” is a value, that means I can actually have behavior that says if it’s happy hour on Friday, and something broke for the customer, the team is back at work putting attention on the issue.

When we make our values explicit early, and we intentionally link these values to how we behave and work together, we’re actively bringing forth the culture we’d like to have at work. And when these are shared values and expressed through our collective behaviors, this culture can help bring out the best in each of us.