3 Keys to Enabling Great Culture

Advice for startup leaders… (Hint: Don’t give too much advice!)

It’s exciting to see so many young entrepreneurs tackling our social and environmental problems with such a great sense of purpose, passion and, perhaps, a little naivety — exploring ambitious new ideas and discovering innovative solutions.

However, what starts out as an exciting adventure can soon become an overwhelming challenge as startups begin to grow. New entrepreneurs that lack management experience must quickly discover their own personal leadership style.

Horses for courses

More often than not, creative people intuitively reject autocratic leadership styles that might appear to be in the ascendency around the world. Autocratic leadership has its place — the military or construction are most often cited — but it doesn’t work with creative professionals.

Autocratic leaders often lack sensitivity to the needs of others. They may gain begrudging compliance from colleagues for a while, but their controlling behaviour stifles collaboration, damages morale and ultimately, drives the best talent out of creative businesses. Critically, research has proven that autocratic leadership styles often result in a lack of creative solutions to problems.

“Remember, there are no great coaches or leaders. They are only as great as the talent they seduce and lead and how much permission this talent gives them on a daily basis to deliver their ideas.”
Carlo Ancelotti, Football coach

In my view, leadership at its best is almost invisible. I believe that “leading from behind” is the most appropriate style for startups and creative technology businesses. It is a form of leadership that requires strong values, integrity, humility and generosity. It is powerful because it respects that colleagues are mature professionals and engages them emotionally.

We need to recognise that, as creative leaders, we can have far greater impact if we focus our energy on enabling others and creating the conditions where sustainable high performance is most likely to occur. In other words, we must focus relentlessly on developing great culture.

Great culture cannot be imposed from the top down, it has to be nurtured from the bottom up. In my experience, there are three keys to enabling a great startup culture:

1. Unlock Intrinsic Motivation

The philosophy popularised by Daniel Pink contends the prevalent business operating system — which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators — doesn’t work and often does harm. Behavioural scientists understood the dynamics and explained the power of intrinsic motivation many years ago to conclude there are three critical drivers:

  • Autonomy — The desire to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery — The urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose — The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

For anyone working in creative professions, this is evidently true.

“The art of leadership is not to spend your time measuring and evaluating. It’s all about selecting the person. And if you believe you selected the right person, then you give that person the freedom, the authority, the delegation to innovate and to lead with some very simple measures.”
Pierre Nanterme, CEO at Accenture

To trigger these drivers in your business:

  1. Allow people to work with minimal supervision as part of highly collaborative agile teams. Believe in the maturity of the people you hired and encourage a self-organising and self-managing mindset. This will generate a greater sense of ownership, accountability and self-esteem.
  2. Support self-improvement and learning with time (spent with leaders or working on personal projects) and money (external training or attending / speaking at industry events) to create a sense of growth and achievement.
  3. Work hard on your brand story to ensure your vision is understood and tailor recruitment to ensure it is personally motivating for everyone in your business. Amplify user impact stories to validate your work and fuel your teams with the innate satisfaction that only comes from working on something important, worthwhile and genuinely innovative.

2. Ask Great Questions

The highest priority for startup leaders is to encourage, support and enable team members to unfold their full potential and abilities. The key is asking great questions.

From a product and service design perspective, consider employing “Design thinking”.

Design thinking is a methodology that helps you feel comfortable wading into the messy complexity of creating something new to the world. It’s an approach for creative problem solving.
Suzanne Howard, IDEO

Design thinking helps product teams empathise with the people they’re creating for. It requires humility and an acceptance that ‘we don’t know’. It’s about being curious, asking those great questions and developing hypotheses to be validated or invalidated — a combination science (ethnography) and art.

From a personal development and performance management perspective, startup leaders can position themselves as a ‘critical friend’, asking employees great questions rather than dictating solutions. By making time for regular informal ‘check-ins’ — in one-to-ones and in small groups — a more empathetic, collaborative context for high-quality, critical and challenging conversations is created.

Performance then becomes employee owned and driven in context to their daily work, allowing individuals to demonstrate their impact.

3. Play

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”
Carl Jung, Psychologist

Our primary goals in childhood are to grow, learn, and play. It is through play that children learn to make sense of the world around them. It is a child’s ‘job’ to play to develop physical coordination, emotional maturity, social skills to interact with other children, and self-confidence to try new experiences and explore new environments.

In its broadest context, play can be interpreted as any pleasurable use of discretionary time. Playfulness is an intrinsic feature of being human, and should be viewed as part of a total lifestyle, not as an occurrence in an isolated time of life.

In adult life, play appears to be an indefinable and controversial concept. Most of us think of adult play as respite or indulgence, but having fun is not a trivial pursuit. In fact, it’s crucial to our mental creativity, health and happiness.

“In every real man, a child is hidden that wants to play.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher, poet

As human beings mature, play behaviour and reasons for participating in play activities change and evolve. Adults are able to contrast work and other life attitudes with play behaviour, or choose play activities that reinforce their lifestyles. Many goals, methods, and styles of work are increasingly connecting to leisure activity.

Encouraging the quality of playfulness is critical to innovation and building great culture in startups. When we play we sense no limitations. We become immersed in our activities and allow ourselves to take risks, accepting failure and viewing it as a learning opportunity.

What to expect…

When you unlock intrinsic motivation, ask great questions and play, amazing things can happen. This was our experience at Kahoot!

If you are not familiar with Kahoot!, it is one of the world’s fastest growing learning brands that now has in the region of 50 million monthly active users across 180 countries. It helps learners to unlock their potential through playful, engaging and social learning, in classrooms and beyond.

Kahoot! was founded by my colleagues Jamie and Johan, and two others. I joined in late 2014, just when things were just hotting up. We saw the need to embed some operational principles and embarked on a holistic endeavour to develop a sustainable high-performance culture.

It’s important to understand we were playing the ‘long game’. Our aim was to stay relevant by continuously innovating. We did not place too much emphasis on efficiency, productivity and delivery (and risking getting it wrong and wasting time and money). The right decisions are not always immediately obvious and takes iterations to get them right. Your leadership team needs to stay strong and help guide the team through the fuzziness until their intuition and creativity start to deliver results.

You’ll know when you’re winning

We had come a long way at Kahoot!, and there were many positive indicators that we were heading in the right direction. In the summer of 2016, I knew we had got something fundamentally right culturally.

The whole company had gathered in Oslo for “Kahoot!ado”, our annual 3-day retreat. It was a chance for us to reaffirm the vision and mission, share strategy and operational plans, strengthen relationships and have some fun together.

On the last day, we had some amazingly open sessions together. We really dug deep into how we felt about our work at Kahoot! In the afternoon, we hired a boat and sailed around the fjords before dropping anchor between some islands. There was a stillness in the air and a calm feeling of contentment.

Suddenly, Johan, who was still CEO at the time, emerged from below deck in his swimming shorts and promptly plunged into the deep blue sea. The rest of us had not come so prepared — we were not aware swimming might be on the agenda. Yet moments later, half of our company of introverts had stripped down to their undies and dove in after him. There was a bond and trust between us. It was a beautiful moment and it confirmed that, together, we had truly created something special.

Kahoot!’ado Summer 2016

If you’ve got this far… thank you for reading! I’m only just starting out on Medium. I’ll be writing more about entrepreneurship, pedagogy, nurturing creative talent and enabling high-performance culture, sharing more practical tips and examples from Kahoot! and other organisations.

I would hugely appreciate some claps 👏 and shares 🙌 so that others can find this article!


We Are Human creates purpose driven organisations striving for social and commercial impact. We are mostly known for co-founding and incubating Kahoot!, “the world’s fastest growing learning brand”, launched in August 2013. By May 2017, along with our co-founders and a highly dedicated team, we had scaled Kahoot! to reach 50 million people around the world every month.

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