How to Foster and Reinforce Your Company Culture
25 April, 2022
Preserving Culture As Your Company Grows
In the early stages of a startup, you likely have very little in terms of actual products or customers. The main focus of the founding team is building a foundation towards pursuing a mission. Culture is organically formed among the characters who make up the founding team. People who join a little later also tend to embrace the core mission, however, past a certain point in the early growth phase, that organically formed culture is at risk of decay.
It's critical for organizations to be proactive in reinforcing the desired culture as the team grows. As your company grows, if you don't explicitly articulate and then reinforce the culture that you want to preserve, a culture will still form. You simply won't have any control over it.
Promoting Your Values on a Daily Basis
ESTABLISH REINFORCEMENT MECHANISMS
Ultimately, how you describe your culture doesn't matter unless you have effective reinforcement mechanisms. Once you clearly articulated your desired values, you must implement various strategies to ensure that what you wrote on paper translates to people acting in ways that align with those values.
Culture doesn't care about what's on your blog posts. The reinforcement portion is much more important than what the stated values of your company are. This was a hard-earned lesson for me and it's where most companies fail. So, how do you reinforce your values?
Transparency is a very common value for companies nowadays, including the ones where I've worked, so use transparency as an example to demonstrate some ways in which you can reinforce this value.
Example 1: In one of my executive roles, I publicly shared my performance reviews with the team. Twice a year I published my reviews and added comments reflecting what I wanted to focus on. You don't normally expect to see your boss' performance review, but it was a testament to our core value of transparency and a great reinforcement mechanism.
Example 2: Traditionally, there's a heavy amount of speculation around promotions and salaries. This gets palpable when a function grows beyond 15 to 20 engineers. People start having questions: "How do I get promoted? Why did this person get promoted? How much are they getting paid? How is my compensation set?" To prevent these questions, publish a clean leveling structure and corresponding compensation ranges, and share guidelines on how to progress within them.
Example 3: Another practice to reinforce transparency is having people who get leveled up co-publish a promotion document with their manager. The document articulates the reasoning for the promotion based on the organization's leveling structure. This approach completely eliminates the aura of mystery around promotions. There's no more room for backroom dealings; it's all in the light for everyone to see. When someone wants to better understand what it would take to earn a promotion, they can read past promotion documents to get a good sense for it.
SMALL EVERYDAY ACTIONS SPEAK VOLUMES
Aside from the more visible actions such as publishing performance reviews, there are also a lot of long-tail little things that reinforce your culture on a daily basis. While these may seem minor and insignificant as a stand-alone, collectively they're very effective.
One simple yet powerful way to reinforce values is through the strategic use of Slack emojis. Introduce the right emojis, ask the leaders to use them in a certain way, and get others to mirror that behavior. When someone shares a post that aligns with a value, and the CEO uses a Slack emoji associated with that, everyone can see how that behavior is praised. Others clicking on the same emoji amplify the reinforcement, and suddenly it's a collective affirmation of that value. A lot of culture reinforcement is about forming habits around behaviors that you want to see.
When you keep doing these little things, you're constantly exposing your team to the core values of the company, so when you go from 20 people to 200 where suddenly you have new people outnumbering your culture veterans, the newcomers get completely absorbed into the culture that you created. That's why it's crucial to consistently exhibit these minor reinforcement mechanisms.
CONSIDER AN OUTSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE
When it comes to culture reinforcement, I like to think about the real-life scenario of someone joining the team on a Monday. When they observe their colleagues' behaviors, which ones are rewarded? Which ones are ignored? Which are punished? These observations help form that person's impression of the company. Culture isn't what you write in a blog post or document. It's what the new hire observes when they walk into the office on their first day. And they, in turn, start to exhibit behaviors in line with those observations. In many ways, it's a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. As more people join the company, those small observations and behaviors become the norm.
Therefore it’s critical to expose people to your values throughout the day. It's not so much for your existing team— although it's always good to have little nudges so people are always being reminded. The most value you get out of this cultural exposure is when a new person joins. They may have read the blog posts, but they have no idea of the real-life applicability of that text.
One of the companies I worked at really valued embracing failures. We held "mess up of the week" presentations during our all-hands meetings. People spent five minutes in front of the whole company talking about something they screwed up that week. It was a great reinforcement of "fail fast, fail hard, learn and move on."
Defining Your Culture is Only the First Step
- The biggest pitfall is assuming that your work is done once you publish a written document outlining the culture you want to foster. Afterward is when the real work begins. My advice is to spend 10 times the effort on reinforcement mechanisms than defining your culture and values.
- Consider integrating culture as a formal part of the performance review process. Evaluate people on how well they foster the culture; maybe even jot down some specific examples of when you see someone demonstrating a value.
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I was hired at HUMAN in 2021 to manage a team that went from hybrid to completely remote working environment because of COVID.
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