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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

The Source Of Tech Misogyny

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017


Anyone looking at the data can’t avoid seeing that tech culture has a strong misogynistic streak.

It wasn’t always that way.

What happened?

Marketing happened.

Specifically, the marketing of computer games in the 1980s.

A lot of early computers were used for game playing,” Elizabeth Ames says. “Those games tended to be more aimed more at boys and men, so it was easy for boys to get a leg up in that area through gaming.

Consider the stats.

… in the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1984, 37% of computer science graduates were women, but those numbers began to drop dramatically in the middle of the decade. By 2016, that number had been whittled down to 18%.

Computers and games were not only marketed to males, they denigrated females (as did other toys, remember the Barbie “Math is tough” fiasco).

In the beginning Apple couldn’t crack the business market, so it went after the education market. When those kids grew up they were completely hooked on Apple and took that attitude into the workplace.

Jobs’ Apple was a master of brainwash marketing, so those kids also brought Apple attitudes with them, too.

The Apple personal computer that was released at the time was marketed specifically to boys (included teasing girls’ computer skills), as were a whole range of other consoles. This gave rise to male computing culture.

Those boys and young men grew up to start and run companies now.

And it’s those insidious attitudes instilled by all that male-centric marketing that became the cornerstones of today’s bro culture.

Knowing this, the current misogynistic streak isn’t all that hard to understand.

But that still doesn’t make it acceptable.

Image credit: Chase N.

Golden Oldies: Ducks in a Row: The Seeds You Plant

Monday, July 18th, 2016

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

This one reminds us that there are as many cultures as there are bosses/managers/supervisors/team leaders in the company. All existing, for better or worse, under the umbrella of the company’s official culture. Read other Golden Oldies here

“That culture is like the air we breathe or the water that fish swim in. It has the potential, for better or worse, to affect everybody in the same way.” –Dr. Linda H. Pololi, a senior scientist at Brandeis University

http://www.flickr.com/photos/infomatique/2544951056/Dr. Pololi was talking about the culture in academic medicine negatively affecting men as well as women, although the women’s situation has a higher profile.

While the information in the article is interesting, as well as unexpected in part, it’s her comment at the end on which I want to focus.

As a manager you set the culture of your own group; it may closely resemble your company’s culture or may be wildly divergent.

The divergence is not always a bad thing—many managers have created great cultures in the midst of toxic ones.

By the same token, toxic mini cultures have been propagated within good company cultures by managers who believe that approach is the best way to manage.

Companies are much like gardens and the cultures within its main culture are what grow therein.

If you equate good culture to flowers and bad culture to weeds the problem becomes obvious.

Flowers are fragile and require more thought, attention and cultivation for them to spread.

However, with no effort on the part of the gardener, weeds spread quickly and if ignored will take over the garden.

There is an anonymous poem that I do my best to emulate throughout my life,

Your mind is a garden,
Your thoughts are the seeds,
You can grow flowers or
You can grow weeds.

With a bit of tweaking you can use it for your company,

Your company is a garden,
Your cultures are seeds,
You can grow flowers or
You can grow weeds.

It’s always a choice, but this choice will affect your employees, customers, vendors and investors.

Be sure to choose consciously, wisely and well.

Flickr image credit: William Murphy

Entrepreneurs: Musical.ly — Channeling Andy Grove

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

In 1849 Jean-Baptiste Karr said, “the more things change the more they stay the same” and that’s still true today.

On the surface you wouldn’t think Musical.ly’s Alex Zhu Zhu and Intel’s Andy Grove have a lot in common, but you would be wrong.

Both created cultures that incorporate a critical attitude — paranoia —  although they look very different.

Andy Grove: “When I came to Intel, I was scared to death. I left a very secure job where I knew what I was doing and started running R&D for a brand new venture in untried territory. It was terrifying.”

Zhu Zhu: “The day we released this application to the market we realized it was never going to take off. It was doomed to be a failure.”

Musical.ly’s first pivot went from a video education app to a combination music/videos/social network that was catnip to their target early-teen demographic.

That led to growth, but it was slow growth, which the founders knew was leading to a slow death.

The a-ha tweak happened when they moved the logo and growth exploded.

They had realized that when people shared the music videos, the logo was cropped out on Instagram and Twitter. They repositioned it so now it was easy to see that it was a Musical.ly video.

Grove said, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” (Grove’s paranoia did not condone bullying or a culture of fear.)

Zhu Zhu is far from complacent and keeps pushing and iterating faster.

“I think we have these scary moments all the time because you’re never safe. Even if you have tens of millions of users, you have to keep them always engaged. I think it’s better for us to be scared all the time rather than feel content that we built a successful product and now we can lay back.”

If you don’t care for paranoia, you can substitute a combination of never-ending mindfulness, objective reality as opposed to comforting assumptions and unremittingly honest feedback.

Image credit: musical.ly

Ducks in a Row: Bosses Different as Night and Day

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016


Edicts by Steve Ballmer and tweets by David Sacks do not a culture change.

Changing culture doesn’t happen overnight and takes a lot of damn hard work.

But it can be done.

And for CEOs willing to take the time and do the work, the payoff is ginormous to the 10th power and goes well beyond money — for the company, the employees, stakeholders and last, but certainly not least, for themselves.

Just ask Satya Nadella or Lou Gerstner, who turned around IBM and said it best.

“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game—it is the game.”

On a funny, or should I say ironic, side note.

As I looked through past posts and articles I realized how similar in name Nadella is to his complete cultural and managerial opposite, [Robert] Nardelli.

Separated by two letters and a mental chasm that dwarfs the Grand Canyon.

Flickr image credit: jphilipg

If the Shoe Fits: Kickstarter, PBC — a Winner’s Choice

Friday, May 13th, 2016

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mDo you have values?

Do you clearly articulate them your team?

Do you strive to incorporate them into your company’s culture?

Do those values include building a sustainable business, kind to the environment, gives back to its community and actively contributes to the wellbeing of its workers?

Will you stay true to those values while growing, when both eyes are on the revenue/profitability of your company?

If so, you could apply to be recognized as a Certified B Corp, like Warby Parker, Etsy, and the Honest Company.

B Corp status is a step in the right direction — but…

When push comes to shove it’s not legally binding.

Public Benefit Corporations (PBC) are a step above and beyond.

And Kickstarter just joined their ranks.

There’s a profound distinction between a “public benefit corporation,” or PBC, and a “B Corp,” co-founder Perry Chen told me during a recent visit to Kickstarter’s Brooklyn headquarters. Both are for-profit companies who wear their missions on their sleeves, but B Corps have no legal responsibility to uphold their values. PBCs, on the other hand, have a legally binding duty to provide benefits to society. One is an accreditation, like “Fair Trade,” the other is an entirely rethought corporate structure.

Put another way, if a PBC puts maximization of shareholder value — the true north of Wall Street — ahead of the public benefits it declares in its charter, it can be sued by its shareholders.

“A value is only a value if it’s non-negotiable,” Chen told me. Kickstarter’s values are now codified in a legally binding document. They’re literally non negotiable.

What are those values?

In section one, the company restates its mission — thereby enshrining that mission in its legal foundation. The second sections lays out the company’s values, taking aim at five highly political corporate issues: Selling user data to third parties (it never will, unlike Google, Facebook, and pretty much most of the Internet), clarity in “terms of services” (it won’t seek legal gains just because it can, unlike, well, pretty much the entire Internet), political lobbying (it won’t lobby unless the issues aligns with its values, regardless of potential monetary gain — unlike … you get the picture), taxation (it won’t employ the “esoteric tax management strategies” beloved by giants like Apple, Uber, et al), and environment (the company is committed to reducing its impact across the board).

Most businesses incorporate in Delaware where the legal PBC framework was signed into law by Gov. Jack Markell in 2013.

Public Benefit Companies are a relatively new legal entity — Delaware, where many fast-growth startups incorporate, created PBCs just three years ago. Besides defining a public benefit as “a positive effect (or reduction of negative effects) on one or more more categories of persons, entities, communities or interests (other than stockholders in their capacities as stockholders),” Delaware’s code allows new PBCs to make “further commitments” beyond the state’s legal definition.

Method, Plum Organics, Alter Eco, and New Leaf Paper are all PCBs.

Kickstarter could just have easily chosen the road to unicornism, but chose their values instead.

What will you choose?

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: the Duplicitous Founder

Friday, February 20th, 2015

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIf anything has changed in the 21st Century it’s the recognition that culture is everything — the true “make or break” for any company.

Knowing that, founders, of all people, should know better than to do anything that undermines their culture.

And yet they do it all the time.

One of the worst is also one of the commonest — having two teams

  • the one to which they pay lip-service and talk about in public; and
  • the one that has their ear, takes priority and stays front and center in all decisions.

Founders constantly refer to their “team” and it’s taken to mean all the company’s employees.

But, for those the shoe fits, it actually refers to their stars, their pets and all (most?) of their direct reports.

This was a common attitude in larger companies, but at least it was honest; bosses were ‘us’, workers were ‘them’ and everybody knew where they stood.

The changes started when Volvo focused the world on the power of teams, research showed that productivity increased when people were more invested and engaged in their work and terminology was introduced that is inclusive and empowering.

Fast forward to now and that language is in common use, but, as with most things, it can be distorted and perverted.

Founders, like other bosses, fall in two categories.

  • Those who buy it, own it, use it and mean it;
  • and those who use it to keep everyone in line who’s not on the ‘real’ team.

Which are you?

And before you claim the first bullet take a good look at your past actions.

In fact, get some feedback from someone you know will tell you the truth, as opposed to what you already “know” or want to hear.

Image credit: HikingArtist

If the Shoe Fits: Saving Culture

Friday, October 10th, 2014

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

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mAs the importance of culture in startups becomes ever more obvious, founders are faced with this question.

“How do we keep our corporate culture as we grow?”

The answer is “Through a lot of hard work and tough hiring decisions.”

There are no shortcuts; no easy way; no app for that.

Unfortunately, that’s not an answer many founders want to hear—or do.

First, you have to clearly identify absolute company values—those with no wiggle room—which takes time and effort.

Next, it means interviewing far more candidates than when all that matters are skills.

Finally, it takes the toughness to walk away from sometimes dazzling candidates who, no matter how brilliant and skilled they are, just don’t fit.

It’s far easier to teach a skill than instill/change values and/or attitude.

So the next time you find yourself in this situation stop and think—is it worth selling your company’s culture down the river just to avoid more interviewing.

It’s your choice, but everyone will end up sleeping in the bed you choose to make.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Stain or Paint? What’s Your Preference?

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/27656042@N03/3320116815/in/set-72157607737046395/Bosses are enamored with culture and rightly so.

However, for culture to work its wonders it must sink deeply into the organization in the same way that stain is absorbed by wood.

Cultural stain is the direct result of walking the talk and making sure that everybody else walks it, too.

It’s intentional action and it requires paying attention.

It must be applied carefully or every imperfection and flaw in the organization will be on display.  

Stain is never the output of an underling; when ideas do bubble up from other parts of the organization they won’t take root without the support of the boss, whether publicly or not.

The problem is that many bosses find it faster to treat culture like paint.

Cultural paint is easier to apply and, like real paint, it can hide everything from minor blemishes to dry rot.

It’s paid lip-service, with effects that are grounded in convenience and often included only to make the employees feel good.

What paint-loving bosses forget is that the more coats of paint are applied the more likely is it to peel.

People aren’t stupid and will vote their displeasure with their feet.

Flickr image credit: maurice.heuts

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