I enjoyed Brian Chesky’s recent post Don’t Fuck Up The Culture, where he proclaims to the employees of Airbnb the importance of culture in everything they do. I like Airbnb and it’s nice to see a founder emphasize culture.
But there’s sloppy thinking at work here. The first problem is there is a field of study of culture: it’s called anthropology. When business and technologists sling the word culture around as if they invented it they get themselves into trouble. Modern start-ups are worthy of cultural study, but to use that small sample in ignorance of a broader view of culture is myopic.
Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.
No. That’s certainly a nice sentiment but it’s not a definition of culture. A proper definition is something like: culture is the willing behaviors and beliefs of a group of people. Many cultures are not passionate, or certainly not passionate primarily about work. It’s implied that these behaviors and beliefs are things people practice by choice, but that’s a mild denial of the role of hierarchy in culture. Most human cultures depend on leaders to define, modify and reinforce the behaviors and beliefs of the group.
This means a CEO or founder has tremendous power regarding culture. They are the only person who can:
- Fire anyone
- Hire anyone
- Decide how/why people are rewarded
- Decide how/why people are punished
And with those 4 powers, every CEO is in fact a Chief Cultural Officer. The terrifying thing is it’s the CEO’s actual behavior, not their speeches or the list of values they have put up on posters, that defines what the culture is. Without these four powers any employee at the company is along for the ride in a culture driven by someone more powerful than they are. By the time the first handful of employees are hired, the culture already exists whether anyone realizes it or not. The people with the most power to fuck up the culture are simply the ones with the most power.
And of course the most vocal challengers to most cultures are the first to be shown the door. It’s in human nature to want to eliminate the most disruptive people. And it’s also human nature to want to bring in more people that fit in well. Repeat these two behaviors over time and culture becomes homogeny, even if everyone still believes the culture values diversity. Is the culture still the same at that point? Everyone still there might believe so, but the people who left because of the culture don’t get asked their opinion.
Of course a democratically inclined leader will delegate the above powers in thoughtful ways, and invite more people to play leadership roles, including people who are disruptive in positive ways. But unless the CEO can be elected out of CEOship, the entire culture is at best a benevolent dictatorship, not a democracy where the culture of power can be changed. How power is distributed has a primary role in defining culture, and that distribution must inevitably change as a company grows.
The thing that will endure for 100 years, the way it has for most 100 year companies, is the culture.
There is no company that has the same culture today that it did 10, 20 or 100 years ago. Cultures often change dramatically as they shift from birth, to immature success, to full maturity (and of course the vast majority of companies die before they even hit adolescence). Study the history of HP, Ford, IBM, Microsoft, or even Google and Facebook, and this observation is revealed. You have to do careful study to filter out which cultural values remained immutable over time, if any at all. Ask the first ten employees to leave a successful company why they left, and many will answer “the company changed.” Which is fine: it probably needed to change to continue its success.
The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation.
This is partially true, and partially a denial that it’s also culture that eventually becomes the single biggest resistance to innovation (and any kind of change). Any tradition, no matter how noble in its inception, eventually becomes the primary force of resistance against new ideas. Again, study the failure of any once great company: often its the powerful defenders or the status quo, under the guise of culture, that accelerated their demise (“that’s not how we do things here”). That is why culture is tricky, as you want pride in the past, but want it tempered so it doesn’t hold you back from progress. The champions of the last war may not be the best leaders in the next one, but who decides who the leaders are? Only the leaders from the past have that power.
Our next team meeting is dedicated to Core Values, which are essential to building our culture… After we closed our Series C with Peter Thiel in 2012, we invited him to our office. This was late last year, and we were in the Berlin room showing him various metrics. Midway through the conversation, I asked him what was the single most important piece of advice he had for us. He replied, “Don’t fuck up the culture.”
Thiel is right, but his observation isn’t particularly helpful. Nearly every organization ruins its culture in some ways, even if it does amazingly well. It depends on what culture you prefer: risk taking or stability? scrappy or luxurious? When an entire company fits in a van it has one vibe, when it barely fits in a stadium, it has another. And more importantly we’re talking about corporations, not orphanages. Once a major profit source is found the goal is to exploit that profit for as long as possible. Thiel’s quote doesn’t acknowledge the presumption that shifting from discovering how to profit, to maximizing (or at least increasing) profit is what a corporation is built for. That shift demands dramatic changes to the culture. Even a simple thing like significantly improving the wealth of employees changes the culture.
The very notion of Core Values, a declaration of cultural philosophy for an organization, is a standard move from the corporate playbook. The existence of a list of values has limited bearing on how often they’re practiced (e.g. the ten commandments). As mentioned above, the behavior of leaders defines culture more than anything else. I’m sure Enron and WorldCom had the same basic values handbook most corporations do, describing how angelic, smart, collaborative and honorable everyone is supposed to be. Platitudes are cheap to produce and put on posters in hallways. What’s missing from these handbooks is a test. How do you know your Core Values are actually being practiced?
How To Test The Value of Core Values:
- Can an employee say NO to a decision from a superior on the grounds it violates a core value?
Try to imagine it. Would a cultural value from your corporate handbook ever be used in making an actual decision about actual work? If the answer is no, then the values are platitudes, or were written so generically that they’re easily overlooked or easily manipulated to justify just about anything (depending on your opinion, Google’s don’t be evil is either a good example or a bad one).
Culture is critically important and I’m glad Chesky is bringing it up. If he’s a good leader and manager he’ll invite his staff to challenge him on the values he defines, and how the proclaimed values are tested.
But there is a presumption among many executives that culture is an asset created and managed like technological resources, which is a mistake. Culture is emotional. It is based on trust and even (platonic) love between people. It is hard to describe culture rationally or in the same easily measurable terms the business world operates on, which explains why so many attempts by business leaders to control and scale culture ultimately fail.
You will also like reading:
- Why Culture Always Wins (from The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work an Amazon.com best book of 2013)
- How To Build A Culture of Debate
- How To Fix A Team
- After reading the comments below, see the comment thread on HackerNews