Updated: Jul 16, 2019
You Might As Well Pay Attention.
I was doing a Q&A at a startup incubator recently when I was asked: “when is the right time to start working on our culture?”. I was pretty surprised. The answer is of course: you start working on your culture from the first moment you start your company, and you’re working on it right now, whether or not you are conscious of it.
An Example (90’s Edition): Intense Young Execs Rocking in Chairs
In the 90’s, we used to visit Microsoft frequently. Almost without exception, we’d end up in a room where a young exec with a short floppy haircut would sit in a chair and rock back and forth as he stared at us, hard. He would ask rapid, deep technical questions with some aggression and very little humor. The execs were different every time, but the behavior was the same. Why? Because Bill Gates was an intense youngish man with a floppy haircut who famously would rock back and forth in his chair as he subjected his teams to direct and intense technical interrogation.3
The culture of the team that you lead, whether it’s a startup or a Fortune 500 company, is defined at a fundamental level by who you are. Your team will repeat the phrases you use, imitate the way you stand and adopt the moods you carry with you. They will make decisions in the same style you do, and at more or less the same speed. They will value what you value, pay attention to what you pay attention to, and ignore what you ignore — good and bad.
Mirroring: A Foundation of Human Relationships
Mirroring is a fundamental tool for human connection. It’s one of the critical ways we learn from our parents — well before we start to understand language, we learn by imitating those closest to us (ever watched a kid who can’t talk yet use a banana as a phone?)
As we develop, mirroring is how we form close bonds with our family, how we choose and stay close to our friends, and how we internalize the teachers who change us (and those who don’t).
There is a physical mechanism at work here (mirror neurons): when we pay attention to another person, we literally (in the correct meaning of the word) start to feel how they feel. The neural networks that fire inside us are the same as those firing in the person we are paying attention to. If they scratch their head, our neural systems act as though we had also scratched our head. If they become angry, we start to feel the pressure of the anger: we unconsciously internally mimic the state of people who are important to us, and we do it constantly. (An in-depth review of the literature on mirror neurons here).
The more important somebody is to us, the more we pick up how they are. When we depend more on others, feel closer to them, or want to be liked by them, we tend to be more inclined to imitate their behavior.
(This idea sometimes shows up as “you are the average of the five people you spend most time with”, which is useful shorthand for this behavior, whatever you think about the accuracy of the statement).
A manager, leader or founder is an important person to the team: the team’s working life (money, status, daily satisfaction) depends pretty fundamentally on how the leader is. So the team pays close attention and unconsciously starts to mirror her: if she moves fast, the team will move fast; if she has a highly optimistic view, so will the team; if she is habitually late and overwhelmed, then expect the team to be overwhelmed also.
Your organizational culture is being shaped right now, by your attitudes and behavior, whether you are conscious of it or not.
The good news is that the more aware you are of your habits, behavior and moods, the more you can consciously moderate the traits that you don’t want to see in your team, and emphasize those that you do. Not easy! But the alternative is having the culture grow around you, unseen and untended, until it becomes rooted and extremely hard to change.
Culture is What You Do, Not What You Say It Is
Culture is formed by what you do, not what you say you’re doing. What you say matters, but only to the extent that it matches what you actually do. If your speech doesn’t match your actions, not only will you not get the culture you want, you’ll get a culture that values saying one thing and doing another.
So, at times you will have to make uncomfortable decisions to preserve the cultural values that are important to you and the company.
If you want an organizational culture of transparency, you will sometimes have to reveal the “sausage making” of high-level decision-making earlier than you’d like. If you want a cultural value of excellent quality, you’ll have to delay releases until they are ready. If you want a culture of inclusion, you’ll have to bend over backwards to make sure that constituencies who traditionally don’t speak up, are given a voice and are heard.
It takes work, and a conscious emphasis on aligning your actions with the values you want to be fundamental to your culture.
What You Get By Acting Your Values
The result of this hard work is an organization that knows what is valued, and will replicate that behavior and set of values as it grows.
Just as your direct reports are constantly learning from your behavior, everybody who joins the organization learns from the people who hire them and work with them. Strong, values-based behavior is contagious.
The result is an organization that has a set of “organizational habits” that define the way work is done. The style of execution and problem-solving sits within a set of guidelines that are just understood. Your job becomes less about imposing process and checking details, and more about vision, leadership and direction.
Why is culture so important to a business? Here is a simple way to frame it. The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing. People can be independent and autonomous.
“Don’t F Up the Culture”, Brian Chesky, AirBnB
Is That It?
Well, no, of course not. Culture needs tending. Culture needs to be broadcast, talked about and demonstrated. It needs to be written down (clearly and concisely), included in on-boarding new employees, and considered in hiring decisions. It needs to be recognized and celebrated.
But it starts with you. If your values are clear, and reflected transparently in your actions and decisions — especially the difficult ones — then you are growing the culture on a solid foundation.
A Checkup: Take An Inventory
Here’s a suggestion: take an inventory of what you value in yourself and in your work. Take a couple of hours away, and a single sheet of paper, and write down the projects you have been proud of, and why; the times you have been excited and alive, and why.
What traits in yourself showed up in those moments? What are the pros and cons of those traits? What really worked and was real to you? (be honest)
Write down what you want your organization to embody. Be honest (again). Map it to the list of your traits.
You now have a set of behaviors and attitudes you can begin to emphasize in yourself, and a set you want to minimize. Check it daily. Refine it against your daily work. Watch for the reflection of your actions in the actions and attitudes of your team.
Your culture is all around you. You built it. The more attention you pay to it, the better it will be.