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Culture On Purpose

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017


Back in 2013 I wrote a post about intentional culture quoting Quicken Loans CEO Bill Emerson.

“If you don’t create a culture at your company, a culture will create itself. And it won’t be good. I sometimes hear people say ‘We don’t have a culture at our company.’ They have one. But if it hasn’t been nurtured, if no one has spent on any time on it, you can assume it’s the wrong culture.”

It’s well recognized that good culture doesn’t just happen — it requires conscious intention from day one and never ending vigilance ever after.

Sustaining culture requires a tough stance on hiring and a willingness to walk away from candidates who aren’t aligned with and enthusiastic about your culture.

However, no amount of vigilance and effort assures that the resulting culture will be what is termed ‘good’.

Whether the intentioal from the top or is allowed to rise from the ranks, the culture will reflect the values of the source and will be propagated by attracting candidates with similar values.

Uber’s bro culture reflects Trvis Kalanick’s values.

Zappos reflects Tony Hsieh’s.

For a great read on intentional culture and how to do it, check out Making Culture a Tangible Metric by Eric Blondeel and Moufeed Kaddoura, co-founders of ExVivo Labs.

Hat tip to the CB Insights newsletter for sharing this article.

Image credit: Richard Matthews

If The Shoe Fits: Expediency Is The New Core Value

Friday, May 5th, 2017

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mThere is much talk these days about ‘values’ and how companies need to base their cultures on them.

Many say that “cultural fit” is used to discriminate against older candidates, people of color, and women.

And that’s likely true if the company doesn’t included diversity and meritocracy as an integral part of their core values.

One recently added core value that isn’t talked about is expediency.

Here’s a great example from Facebook.

On May First, Facebook was accused of sharing information on how/when to reach “emotionally “insecure” and vulnerable teens on its network.” Naturally, the company denied doing it, but just the fact that they can should be very disturbing.

Even if Facebook hasn’t allowed advertisers to target young people based on their emotions, its sharing of related research highlights the kind of data the company collects about its nearly 2 billion users.

Also on May first Facebook announced a new effort to fight fake news — definitely expedient considering how angry people are — better late than never.

Facebook has appointed a veteran from The New York Times to lead its news products division, which is responsible for stopping the spread of fake news and helping publishers make money.

Making money is the number one priority — no matter how often a company says otherwise.

That’s what underlies expediency.

And I doubt it will change any time soon.

Image credit: QuotesEverlasting

If the Shoe Fits: Juxtaposition of Values

Friday, October 21st, 2016

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mI’ve been talking, a lot in the last few weeks about the importance of values.

And more importantly, why/how they need to be embedded in your company’s culture to protect it as you grow.

Not just my thoughts, but links to business leaders and entrepreneurs who say the same thing.

The problem, of course, is that talk is fast and easy, while execution takes time and effort.

And that’s the reason  the result often looks like this.


Image credit: HikingArtist and Thomson Reuters via CB Insights

Entrepreneurs: Tien Tzuo on Learning from Marc Benioff

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

https://www.flickr.com/photos/howardlake/9289616655/Founders have a new, or should I say, back to the future, attitude regarding the success of their companies.

It can be summed up in one word: revenue.

While there are great examples and plenty of advice on generating revenue, as opposed to just growing users, I think these four lessons that Tien Tzuo, CEO of Zuora, the eleventh hire at Salesforce.Com and its first CMO, learned from Marc Benioff are worth keeping front and center in your mind (details are at the link.).

  • Pitching is Listening.
  • Run towards big ideas, not away.
  • Never lose sight of your first principles.
  • Tear Up the Master Plan.

Based on my experience, founders, especially younger founders, will have the most trouble with the first and the third in the list.

Pitching is Listening: whether driven by passion, nervousness or fear, most founders want to push their vision, their product, their ideas to potential customers.

Marc is always testing his ideas, testing his strategy, testing his vision.  Marc is always in a mindset to listen, to observe, to understand, and it’s this discipline that allows him to always be in touch with the marketplace. It’s easy for people in his position to get disconnected and fall prey to myopic thinking.

Never lose sight of your first principles: it takes thought and a solid knowledge of oneself to identify core principles. Unfortunately, taking the time and spending the energy on such an ostensibly esoteric goal seems to happen less and less these days.

Try searching “invest in yourself” and you’ll find that most talk about adding skills, exploring/developing your creativity and maximizing physical and mental health.

That’s all good, but if you truly want to invest in yourself then set aside time to know yourself, i.e., your values and basic principles; the intangibles that make you you.

Image credit: Howard Lake

Entrepreneurs: Tuft & Needle’s Bootstrapped Success

Thursday, January 28th, 2016


You hear it all the time, “build a product that solves your own problem.”

That’s exactly what JT Marino and Daehee Park, both software engineers, did when they quit their jobs to create mattress company Tuft & Needle, seeding it with $3000 from each each of them.

They didn’t take venture money because they wanted to build the company for the long term and borrowed the money they needed to grow.

“The reason why we turned them down all those times is because we figured it would change the way we operate as a company.”

Instead, Marino, 30, and Park, 27, took out a $500,000 loan, at a rate of 10%, from Bond Street, one of the new breed of alternative lenders, in order to keep control of the company and continue doing things their own way.

They built the business online — no showrooms and no salespeople.

No hassles returning a mattress you hate. And, perhaps most important, no gimmicks on prices, which range from $350 for a twin to $750 for a king.

They’ve considered other products, even developed a few, but with no investors to force them to expand, they are focusing on the mattress business.

Is it paying off? Absolutely, so no problem meeting their loan payments.

By its first year in business, Tuft & Needle had reached $1 million in revenues. And then it just kept growing, hitting $9 million in 2014, then $42 million in 2015. This year, Marino and Park expect revenues to reach between $125 million and $225 million, a three- to five-fold increase over last year. And, yes, it’s profitable.

However, recognizing that not everyone, especially older buyers, are comfortable buying a mattress online, they are opening their first retail store at 637 King Street in San Francisco (where else?) — first and possibly last.

“It could very well be our first and last store, or it could be the first of many,” Marino says.

That’s the priceless reward for bootstrapping.

Call your own shots, experiment as you choose and stay true to your values.

Image credit: Tuft & Needle

If the Shoe Fits: Hiring Starts With the Basics

Friday, April 10th, 2015

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mWay back in 2006 I described the difference between process and bureaucracy.

I was reminded of it by a phone call from “Kev” asking for assistance because they were having trouble hiring.

He said they had no trouble attracting excellent candidates who seemed excited about the product and work, but they couldn’t seem to close them.

I asked two questions,

  1. How would you describe your company’s culture and its core values?
  2. What is your hiring process?

Kev described the culture in terms of working hard, a really fun atmosphere (foosball table, bubble machine, Friday beer bust, etc.) an “awesome product” and “incredible people.”

He said whoever was available sat in on the interview along with him and everyone had a say in whether an offer was made. They didn’t have a formal process, because they were a startup, but planned to put something in place when they started to scale.

I explained to Kev that what he described wasn’t really a culture; that real culture is based on inviolate values.

Moreover, processes created outside or in ignorance of existing culture won’t work. It’s that simple.

That’s because the culture is anchored by and tied to the founder’s values and MAP.

For example, startups/high growth companies are often hotbeds of raging egos. If the culture is tolerant of that then the level of open communications that form the basis of great culture leading to good process is impossible.

Further, process created without a solid cultural basis will quickly turn to bureaucracy — which will slow growth while accelerating turnover.

For more information read If the Shoe Fits: Culture is Numero Uno

Join me next Thursday for a look at how to create a successful hiring process.

Image credit: HikingArtist

If the Shoe Fits: Conversation with a Founder

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mFounder: I can’t be a good leader without knowing my people. How I can contribute to their life?

Me: You are going to have a lot of people who have no interest in sharing their personal life with you or having you contribute to it other than providing a great place to work.

Founder: How? I am a leader who prefers 1 on 1

Me: It’s not about you, it’s about them and what interaction they prefer; and as the company grows you will not have time or access for 1/1, unless you plan to interfere with your managers’ organizations. What it is about is the culture you create.

Founder: You can’t lead if you can’t connect.

Me: Connection is not always 1/1; that’s why culture is so important.

Founder: You have to know your people.

Me: No, you need to know your direct reports and know that they are supporting your culture. Anyway, good leadership should be spread around your company and not just the province of certain positions.

Founder: You can’t convince me. I have had coffee with my subordinates to know them and that catapulted us. Culture is about having a tea, cappuccino with my subordinates and talking about stuff, then car-pooling.

Me: I’m not saying to stop, I’m saying it won’t work with everyone, plus, you won’t have time as the company grows. There are many people who have no interest in that kind of intimate, personal relationship with their boss, but are world-class hires. They care about the company’s culture because they know it reflects the founder’s values.

Me: Moreover, bosses who can only relate 1/1 are often seen as playing favorites, because they tend to favor those who respond to their approach.

Me: If you try to cram every hire into any one, narrow MAP it will cost you talent and engagement, because those who don’t like it will either walk or disengage.

Me: The important takeaway here is that when it comes to worker interaction one size does not fit all.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Entrepreneurs: Consciously Build Your Culture

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015


Great culture is about values, not fancy offices, free food, perks, etc., because, done well, it provides a blueprint for any worker faced with making a decision.

Great cultures don’t happen by accident or benign neglect, nor do they grow organically.

They are the result of focused thought, intentional design and, focused effort.

They are sustained through exceedingly careful hiring and the willingness to walk away from a candidate whose values aren’t compatible.

For great insight into building a values-based company read this interview with John Montgomery, founder of Bridgeway Capital Management.

The investment industry is known more for its greed than its social sensitivity, but Bridgeway has been making waves for more than 20 years by giving 50% of its profits to charity and capping top salaries.

Montgomery’s approach has been profitable, as well as a talent magnet and retention tool.

John, you founded Bridgeway Capital Management 22 years ago and your firm grew to manage billions in assets. Many people are drawn to your firm because you are values-driven, and your website says your core values are: ‘integrity, performance, efficiency, and service’. What does it mean to live these values? (…)  “We’re not trying to create golden handcuffs to keep people in place. We’re trying to create an amazing place to work where people can provide investment advisory services and give back at the same time. On my team — the investment advisory team — we’ve lost one portfolio manager or researcher in 20 years.

If a culture built around ‘integrity, performance, efficiency, and service’ can propel and sustain a company in an industry like financial services where talk is cheap and talent is supposedly focused only on what’s in it for them, think what strong values can do for your company.

Image credit: Dave Gray

If the Shoe Fits: Culture is Numero Uno

Friday, March 14th, 2014

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here


I don’t think the list of 17 Traits That Distinguish The Best Startup CEOs were in priority order, but if they are I disagree and think the first two are out of order.

The list reads,

  1. [Is] good at hiring AND firing.
  2. Builds a culture, not just a company.

It should read,

  1. Builds a culture, not just a company.
  2. Good at hiring AND firing, but rarely needs to.

Founders who go into the game with a conscious sense of their own values, create a culture based on those values and make sure to communicate it rarely find it necessary to fire anyone.

In other words, they use their culture to filter their hiring and are tough enough to walk away from candidates with good skills who aren’t culturally compatible.

But how do you know? How can you evaluate culture compatibility in the short time you interview?

I explained how to do it way back in 1999 when the following was published by MSDN and have republished it here every few years; I think it’s time again.

Don’t Hire Turkeys!
Use Your Culture as an Attraction, Screening and Retention Tool to Turkey-Proof Your Company.

Companies don’t create people—people create companies.

All companies have a culture composed of its core values and beliefs, essentially corporate MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™) and that culture is why people join the company and why they leave if it changes.

Generally, people don’t like bureaucracy, politics, backstabbing, etc., but when business stress goes up, or business heats up, cultural focus is often overwhelmed by other priorities.

In startups, it’s easier to hire people who are culturally compatible, because the founders first hire all their friends, and then their friend’s friends.

After that, when new positions have to be filled the only people available are strangers.

So how do you hire strangers and not lose your culture?

Since your culture is a product of your people, hire only people with matching or synergistic attitudes. The trick is to have a turkey sieve that will automatically screen out most of the misfits and excite the candidates who do have the right values and attitudes.

Here is how you do it.

  • Your sieve is an accurate description of your real culture.
  • It must be hard copy (write it out), fully publicized (everyone needs to know, understand, believe and talk about it), and, most important of all, it must be real.
  • Email it to every candidate before their interview and be sure that everyone talks about the culture during the interview and sells the company’s commitment to it.
  • Everybody interviewing needs to listen carefully to what the candidate is saying and not saying; don’t expect a candidate to openly admit to behaviors that don’t fit the company MAP, since she may be unaware of them, may assume that your culture is more talk than walk or consider it something that won’t apply to her.
  • Red flags must be followed up, not ignored because of skills or charm.
  • Consider the various environments in which she’s worked; find out if she agreed with how things were done, and, more importantly, how she would have done them if she had been in control.
  • Whether or not the candidate is a manager, you want to learn about her management MAP, approaches to managing, leadership and work function methods.
  • Probing people to understand what their responses, conscious as well as intuitive, are to a variety of situations reveals how they will act, react, and contribute to your company’s culture and its success.

Finally, it is up to the hiring manager to shield the candidate from external decision pressures, e.g., friends already employed by the company, headhunters, etc.

Above all, it is necessary to give all candidates a face-saving way to withdraw their candidacy and say no to the opportunity. If they don’t have a graceful way of exiting the interview process they may pursue, receive, and accept an offer, even though they know deep down it is not a good decision.

A bad match will do major damage to the company, people’s morale and the candidate, so a “no” is actually a good thing.

Remember, the goal is to keep your company culture consistent, flexible and true to your core values as you grow.

From the time you start this process, you need to consciously identify what you have, decide what you want it to be, publicize it, and use it as a sieve to be sure that everyone who joins, fits.

Use your cultural sieve uniformly at all levels all the time. If someone sneaks through, which is bound to happen occasionally, admit the error quickly and give her the opportunity to change, but if she persists then she has to go.

For more help, download the CheatSheets in the right-hand frame and/or give me a call at 360.335.8054.

No charge:)

Image credit: HikingArtist

Ducks in a Row: When Trust is not Enough

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014


How would you respond if you were head of a global professional company with more than 1,400 partners, 18,500 employees and a culture built on values, trust and honor when the values were ignored, trust was broken and the organization dishonored by someone at the highest level?

That was the challenge that Dominic Barton faced shortly after he became head of consulting firm McKinsey.

The values that Marvin Bower, its longtime managing director, instilled included putting the clients’ interests above the firm’s, providing independent advice and keeping confidences. These ideas were imparted from one generation to the next, mentor to apprentice. But after Anil Kumar’s arrest [he pleaded guilty] in late 2009, Mr. Barton, who had been elected to head the firm just months earlier, decided that the honor-driven, values-based system was not enough. What the firm needed was some rules.

Powerful people do not take kindly to rules and nobody takes kindly to rules that result from someone else’s actions—especially when they impact one’s income.

Ethical people like to believe that defining values and modeling them across the organization from the top down is enough.

It’s not.

An exceptional CEO I worked with who detested politics believed it was enough that his senior staff couldn’t use politics to get ahead with him. What he refused to recognize was that even though the political games didn’t work on him they wreaked havoc on those below the game-players.

This is especially true in the current world where greed, whether for wealth and/or power, is epidemic and “enough” no longer has any meaning.

But to work, the rules must apply evenly to everybody, at all levels, including the rule maker.

Flickr image credit: Andrew Scott

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