Culture has become a buzzword in startups. Culture gets talked about and talked about - how to create culture, how to scale culture, how to preserve culture – we care a lot about CULTURE. But what is culture?
At its most basic level, culture is how we do things here. It’s the tangible and intangible that define a group of people or a place. When we think about defining culture, we must become anthropologists - what are the rituals and artifacts that would define this group of people or place? How would someone understand this environment and its norms?
For companies, it’s useful to think about the overarching company culture, and then the unique culture of each team within the company. Imagine New York City. New York City has a distinct culture that is all its own. But then each neighborhood within NYC - the Upper West Side or Bushwick or Yorkville – has its own subculture that defines it. And as New Yorkers, we can belong to both cultures. I’m both a New Yorker and an Upper West Sider. We want employees to feel the same cultural “bothness” in a company. We want them to identify as members of the company and as members of the marketing team (or the engineering team, customer success team, etc). We want to create that centralized company culture, while encouraging our team leaders to develop localized team cultures. That way, we get the harmony of team culture and company culture.
Culture is not ping pong or beer on tap or any of the other flashy startup artifacts that get bandied around on shows like Startup. Culture is how we do things here - how we communicate, how we collaborate, how we celebrate.
I came of age in the startup world of the aughts, when a fridge full of beer was the indelible marker of startup life. And yet (thankfully!) that definition of culture seems to have aged out. The fraternity-esque idea that a startup must be full of people you can “hang out with” who are “culture fits” has NOT aged well. But (especially as we navigate through a pandemic and digital transformation) it’s gotten more challenging to define what is culture. How do we do things here? Especially when “here” often means the intangible digital world of emails, slacks, and zooms.
We create culture by naming it. We make the undefinable clear when we put words to behaviors and expectations. We build culture by defining how we do things here. When we are intentional and document the norms and rituals of our environment, we create a culture that is inclusive and accessible.
Documentation doesn’t sound very fun. But documentation is your friend when you’re looking for ways to build culture and scale. I promise you that time spent documenting is time well invested. It will help you grow in an intentional way.
Here’s my startup friendly list of how to define your culture (or how to define “how we do things here:):
Document expectations: How can you de-mystify what you expect from employees, both as a group or as individuals? Every startup I’ve ever worked with has talked about how they love employees who “go above and beyond.” It’s very challenging for people to know what “above and beyond” looks like if they don’t have a tangible understanding of what “meeting expectations” looks like. Here are a few ways you can document expectations:
Working hours - What are your expectations for working hours for employees? While this sounds simple, it’s the rare startup that has a clear answer here. Are your expectations that employees work 9am-6pm? Or do you expect people to be available late into the night, answering slack messages? Do you expect email responses on the weekend? Be honest here - what are your expectations?
I often find that startup leaders are still holding onto the business building expectations they set for themselves as founders as they start to hire employees. They expect devotion and immediacy in response times and a lot of hard work. They recognize that it doesn't look great to put on paper, so they don’t clarify what the working expectations are.
The most successful companies are the ones that provide simple clear guidance such as:
We expect employees to work 40 hours a week. Our shared working hours when meetings can be scheduled are 10am-4pm EST. We embrace flexibility and encourage you to speak with your manager about working hours expectations for your role.
Goals and expectations for individuals roles - What are the core expectations for each role in the business? What does an employee need to achieve to be successful in their role? What are the “service level agreements” for the role? Each team leader should be able to clearly articulate this for each role. It should be documented and it should be shared.
Company Values - What are the expectations of how employees behave and conduct themselves? Your company values are the handbook for how employees should guide their behavior. The clearer you can be about what you value and how you want people to behave, the better.
Document norms: In any environment, there are accepted norms for how we conduct ourselves. Think about riding the subway in NYC. We expect individuals to let the people getting off the train out of the doors first, and then the people trying to enter the train get on. We expect the subway riders to mainly keep to themselves and not engage with others. These are norms – they’re unwritten rules that are understood. I recommend companies write down the unwritten rules - document the norms - so that employees clearly understand how to navigate the environment. Here are a few suggestions:
Response time norms - When someone receives an email or a slack message, how quickly are they expected to respond? I can feel you thinking, “ASAP!” Well, what does ASAP mean to you? I turned to my husband and asked him this, and he said, “by the end of the day.” In my mind, “ASAP” means within 5 minutes. VERY different definitions. You help employees out by spelling out clearly what the expectations are. If you don’t spell out the norms, people will infer the norms through unwritten behaviors like “this one person always responds really quickly… so I guess I have to too? The CEO writes emails on weekends – so I guess I have to respond on weekends?” Make the expectations clear. You’ll reduce anxiety and help people function in your environment.
Meeting norms - When can meetings be scheduled? What are the expectations within a meeting? Who speaks? Who runs the meeting? Chances are, this isn’t clear at your company. Get a leg up on other companies by making it clear. Create clear meeting guidelines which show how meetings work. This is a great moment to “level up” how meetings work (i.e. require agendas! Encourage documentation and sharing after a meeting, don’t allow “to-do’s” without a clear owner, create expectations around how you encourage inclusivity). We spend so much time in meetings at a company. The way meetings are conducted is a big part of your culture. Take this opportunity to set the culture you want - I’d advocate you create an inclusive, organized culture that does not “default” to meetings, but rather uses meetings as a tool for connection and collaboration.
Communication platform norms - Are you an email culture? A slack culture? How do people communicate and with what platform? When you provide clarity on when to use email vs slack vs a meeting, you create a culture that can scale and grow.
Document even what you assume people know (SPELL it out): Let me tell you a story about how I once was refining a company’s stance around time off. In a focus group with employees, I heard an employee share that “it would be nice to take a sick day and just be sick.” I asked the employee what she meant, and she shared that “you can’t just ‘be sick’ - you’ve got to be on email and answering slacks. But sometimes you really feel sick and it’s hard to do that, you know?” I was shocked, but when I thought about it, this company did have an employee base with passion and work ethic, so I could see how someone could get the wrong idea about norms when sick. A lot of people did work (albeit remotely) while sick. As the People Ops Leader, I felt like I had failed - everyone should know they are entitled to a sick day. Our policy was solid and said that sick time was available, but we needed to be even more clear. I learned an important lesson that day - you can have documentation, but if the norms and behaviors are not in line with that documentation, people will listen to the norms they see and hear (and not the written guidelines). It’s why it’s so important that we document the truth and we reinforce what we document - that’s how we create culture. You better believe I did a lot of reacclimating what our policy and expectations were with both managers and employees. When it comes to clarity around what you assume people know, take the approach that you’re introducing your environment to someone from outer space. It can’t hurt to be overly clear and provide MORE guidance (not less). If something could risk being misinterpreted, SPELL it out!
Build and document rituals and artifacts - This will take experimentation, but critical to any culture are the rituals and artifacts that define it. If we’re using New York City as an example, some rituals might be going to the park on the first warm day of Spring (if you live in New York City, you understand – it seems everyone goes to the park the first warm day of Spring) and an artifact might be a bagel or a slice of pizza. For your company, begin by experimentation, and then ritualize and document :
Celebrations: How do you celebrate success? How do you recognize employees? Do you host town halls where individuals shout out others for their contributions? Do you mark milestones of company and team progress by group get-togethers? Find the consistent ways you want to celebrate with your team. Experiment to start and see what works. When you find what works, document it.
Gatherings: What are the regular ways that you bring the team together? All hands meetings? Retros after big projects? Monthly or quarterly fun events? Create schedules and consistency around how you get together. Again, experiment (that’s the only way to learn what works for you and your team). And then once you have a cadence, document it.
Artifacts: This is fun – find the markers of your culture and make sure they are threaded through the employee experience. I once worked with a company where Legos were huge. We had a conference table built out of Legos (that the early employees had all contributed to building). We gave Legos to all new hires in their welcome bags. We had loose Legos around the office and in various conference rooms for people to play with. Legos were an artifact of this culture, which aligned with our company’s mission of supporting buildings and real estate (can’t get much closer to a fun artifact around building than Legos!). There are objects and artifacts in your culture too. Find them, document them, and weave them through your employee experience.
When I got married, one of the readings we chose was Wilferd Arlan Peterson’s The Art of Marriage. Peterson writes that in a marriage, “the little things are the big things.” It’s about saying “I love you,” holding hands, and helping each other from a place of joy, not obligation. I find this is true with employees too – the little things are the big things. So often companies are hugely ambitious about what they want their cultures to be and how they want their environments to run. But the reality is – simple is best. Emphasize clarity. Emphasize kindness and respect. Build small but meaningful moments of connection and service into who you are. Your employees will thrive. Your business will thrive. The little things are the big things. Go back to the basics when you think about your culture – how do we do things here?
Struggling to answer that question? Mobilize your employees - they are the co-creators and experts on how things are done! No one person or function “owns” culture - we all contribute to it. As Peterson says in his poem, “it is not only marrying the right partner, it is being the right partner.” That’s what culture is - not just creating it but living it, day after day.
And the sad reality is that culture exists in all of our companies, whether or not we thoughtfully construct it. Every space where people work together has “how we do things here.” So if you’re not thoughtful and intentional about it, it will still exist, just probably not in the way that aligns with your vision and values for the business. So get intentional! Define how we do things here. Create your culture.