How to Lead and Cultivate Culture in Your Startup

Borrow a rule of screenwriting to build great organizational culture.

In 2012, Peter Thiel, famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist, had just worked with Airbnb to close their $150M Series C. Among the celebrations, CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, posed to Thiel a serious question: “What’s the single most important piece of advice you can give us?” Thiel’s response: “Don’t fuck up the culture”. At that point, Airbnb had a little over 300 employees.

In April 2015 I moved my family from Australia to Seattle to be about the twenty-fifth employee at an early stage startup. In February this year, we surpassed three hundred employees and it was apparent that throughout 2018 we’d continue to grow…fast. In fact, looking at our headcount forecast revealed somewhat of a frightening data point:

At the end of 2018 potentially around 50% of employees at our company would have a tenure of less than twelve months. How tough would it be to keep a great culture with such an influx of new people?

We reflected on Thiel’s advice to Chesky and made the commitment: we would not fuck up the culture.


Cut the fluff

If you’re thinking organizational culture is just about fluffy nice-to-have things — like ping-pong tables and beer taps, coffee machines and well stocked snacks — but isn’t really important to external company success, you’re forgiven. But let me help reframe you’re thinking: In a well cited 2017 research paper on corporate culture — in which over 1300 CEOs/CFOs of large public and private companies were surveyed or interviewed — 92% believed a great culture would increase the value of their company. That’s no fluff and particularly meaningful for early and mid stage startups.

I have the opportunity to work for a company that truly recognizes being purposeful in cultivating and protecting company culture is fundamental to its success. In fact, after being there for three years — it became my dedicated purpose. Culture is now my job.

Learn from the way screenwriters think

Let me paint you my picture of how I think about culture by giving you a lesson in one of my other passions — screenwriting (So, I’ve never actually written a full script. But don’t worry, most aspiring screenwriters never have, so I don’t feel alone 😉. That’s what makes it a passion, and not a career!).

There’s a core rule drummed in to your head when learning to write for screen or stage: An audience cannot see feelings. “Dave felt very excited when the big deal finally closed” is an example of a terrible scene description or stage direction. A screenwriter’s job is to allow the audience to see what’s happening through action and dialogue. “Dave waved the signed contract above his head, did three cartwheels and ran through the office cheering and high-fiving his amused colleagues” is a better scene description because it can be acted out and we, the audience, can see it. It’s about the doing, not just about adjectives written on a page.

Culture is how we act out the company’s values. Writing values with bold emotional adjectives like passionate, transparent or innovative on slide decks or posters is all well and good, but doesn’t really enable us to see those things, to live them. We need the scene descriptions to help us act out those values — and the result of what we see is culture. This forms a key guiding principle for anyone responsible for driving company culture: Culture is about what we do, not simply what we say we do.

The job of a culture leader is to write compelling scene descriptions

Culture leaders must live and breath the screenwriter’s rule: An audience cannot see feelings. You must embody the screenwriter and give your audience, employees, amazing scene descriptions to allow them every opportunity to act out behaviors that represent your values and cement your culture.

So you guessed it, the employees role — or in fact it’s more of a power — is to keep acting out the story…keep doing. As employees, every single one of us has the power to influence how any of countless “scenes” we’re in each day pans out. The power to help our colleagues shine in the spotlight. The power to make customers give us a standing ovation. The power to decide how we embody our values by acting them out to allow us to see our culture.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. In fact, because I couldn’t put it better myself and it’s likely you’re getting sick of the screenwriting metaphor, here’s how Chesky said it to the team at Airbnb post Thiel’s advice:

We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to fuck up the culture. Each one of us has this opportunity, this burden.

Being a little more practical

Okay, I get all that sounds somewhat philosophical. Here’s some practical ways for culture leaders to execute the culture via screenwriting metaphor:

In a nutshell, lead high-impact employee engagement and communication programs that:

  • drive understanding of what your company is made of: One idea —Develop a comprehensive new employee on-boarding program with heavy focus on values and culture. When new folks start in the company, they must finish the first week with a clear understanding of how we do things around here…focus on reinforcing behaviors. What’s normal; what’s acceptable; what’s not. Think basics — for example, how do ideas get communicated at your company? Is it normal to put together a formal twenty slide deck, or a scrappy one page memo? Give them the directions to act out the culture you want. Don’t limit yourself to on-boarding only new employees either — I’ve been experimenting with the concept of “re-boarding”, essentially inviting seasoned employees to participate in on-boarding to reinvigorate, refresh and inspire them.
  • celebrate what makes you unique: A company I admire is Zappo’s and I love one of their values: “Create Fun And A Little Weirdness”. Find some unique elements in your company and bring them front and center in things you do. I work at a company with many remote employees around the world, it’s what makes us unique. We embrace that by running some quirky programs that people love. One of them is a Slackbot (donut.ai) that randomly matches our people together in groups of three every other week for a casual agenda-less chat, purely in the vein of building relationships. Our CEO, co-founders, other senior leaders are all involved…it’s another way we provide an opportunity to act out our values like transparency and collaboration.
  • equip employees to act out the story of what makes them, their team and the company great: Give your folks access to tools to make it simple for them to express their acknowledgement and gratitude for behaviors they see being acted out that align with the culture you’re building. For example, all our values have been codified as fun emojies and it’s commonplace to use those as reactions in Slack — you see something that reflects someones passion, you react with our passion value emojie. We also implement a Praise Wall — a digital wall where people call out the great work or behaviors of others. It’s presented on digital displays within our main offices around the world as well as the front page of our internal Confluence site.
Our praise wall (confidential data obscured to protect the innocent).

The common element of the tips above? They’re all aligned with enabling employees to act out behaviors, to act out culture. You won’t see large framed posters in our office spouting our values. Our success so far has been to embrace our culture by doing, not by simply saying.

Organizational culture is a space with so much to be explored. As I’ve grown in to the role I’ve found having some core guiding principles coupled with practical advice has enabled great acceleration. If you’re passionate about the culture at your company I hope the points above can give you some good beginnings to build from. I’ll continue to share more as I learn more and look forward to hearing your thoughts, too.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +386,297 people.

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