The Intricacies Of Building A Development-Driven Startup Culture

A company’s culture can determine its fate.

But for something so important, it’s strangely difficult to pin down.

It’s hard to articulate what sets one culture apart from another.

If you ask people what makes their culture unique, very few of them will be able to answer you clearly.

Here’s how one coworker described our company’s culture to me: “I can’t say what’s different about it, but I can feel it.”

They can feel it.

Culture is deeper than a mission statement or a memo.

Employees may not be able to nail down exactly what it is that sets your company apart, but they understand it intuitively.

Every company is different, but the goal for culture is always to create an environment that works to advance your mission.

Personally, I advocate for a culture that’s built around people development, because when employees are pushing themselves and learning new skills, the company benefits. But building a culture that encourages and facilitates development isn’t simple.

I’ve been trying to do it as the CEO of Morphic Therapeutic for the past two years, so I want to share some of what I’ve learned along the way.

Develop people to their fullest potential.

When Morphic was founded, I really wanted to put an emphasis on developing our people to their fullest potential.

I’m deeply interested in how people train themselves, develop skills, and pursue their passions. I wanted to find a way to share that with our team and create a culture that helps people achieve their personal and professional goals.

And while I’m genuinely invested in helping people develop on a personal level, I also had an inkling that it would help us achieve better results for the patients we’re trying to help as a company.

The benefits of developing your employees are inevitable.

When people are motivated to perform at a high level and pursue their goals, their performance reflects that.

Experiment with different techniques.

There isn’t one perfect approach to development.

There are different techniques you can use, so you have to find what works best for your team.

The interview is a tool that we’ve used extensively at Morphic. Our employees are encouraged to interview someone whose job they could see themselves doing in the future.

The goal is for our employees to get the facts about different careers. Armed with those facts, they can create a theory about how that person moved up from one point to the next. And as they meet with and interview more people, they can test that theory to see if it holds up.

Creating a culture of development doesn’t happen overnight.

You have to look for different ideas and techniques to put into practice. If something works, keep it. Otherwise, move on. Keep monitoring the outcomes and making sure that your employees are engaged with what you’re doing.

Don’t force the culture.

All employees had to do development training at Morphic during our first year.

We facilitated it and made it happen. And after that first year, we learned that you really can’t mandate development. People have to make that decision for themselves.

Personal agency is very important.

There are times when an individual is heavily focused on self-development. And there are also times when that same person isn’t focused on development at all. They might have a lot going on in their personal lives, or they’re simply focused on their work. But they aren’t thinking extensively about self-improvement.

So, we removed the requirement that everyone participate in the program. It’s still highly recommended, but people can self-select whether to use the tools available.

If they want to work on development, that’s great. If they don’t, we don’t force it.

Because you can’t force culture. You can’t just say, “This is the way we’re doing things now,” and expect everyone to jump on board immediately.

Don’t let your commitment to the culture just be lip service.

If you say you want to help people develop themselves, but you pile on enough work to keep them busy until 9 pm every night, then you don’t really mean it.

As a CEO, my commitment has to be clear.

Almost daily I’m talking to experts, reviewing the latest research, speaking with employees about it. It’s an intricate part of who I am. As I get older, I’m realizing that I’m not sure there is much more to happiness beyond seeing yourself develop your capabilities in the areas that you want. I think that message comes through authentically in actions.

But if development just means typing up a Development Plan that no one ever looks at, then it’s not going to become part of your culture.

Your culture can’t be about checking boxes. The people at the top have to walk the walk.

It will become clear where your priorities really lie.

If you can show people that you’re genuine in your desire to help them develop themselves, they’ll notice. And when people are engaged and interested in what you’re offering, that’s when it becomes a part of your culture.


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