Over the years I have led countless discussions at xMatters titled, “It is all about the ‘cultcha’ stoopid’” to keep all of our employees focused. Don’t get me wrong, we have shareholders, I know we have to be financially successful – but how we choose to get there is largely governed by the culture of our organization.
Eighteen months ago I realized I had fallen asleep at the wheel. Now, before you rush to judge, I was awake at other wheels but not the culture wheel. The irony was this was about the time we were awarded the Fortune #1 Best Medium Technology Company.
Before I continue to dissect my failure publicly let’s talk about culture.
Is it important?
Uh duh, yeah. We all can smell good or bad culture a mile away. How an organization treats its customers and employees tells you a lot. Companies with toxic cultures can be successful. This is true. But, when was the last time you advocated for a company with awful service? The values of a successful culture will see you through the hard times and maximize the good times as customers reward you with buying more or advocating your brand. So if it feels too touchy-feely for you then think of it as “shareholder value optimization,” now give me a hug.
What is it?
You can learn about culture in more places than you have time: TED Talks, airport business books, podcasts, HBR articles, shares like the excellent one from Netflix and so on. You can observe it at the counter, on a flight, or while renting a car. Or you can open up a 1990s text book on organizational behavior and craft your own mission statement.
Study all you like but don’t miss the headline! The most important thing about culture is that each person believes in it. If they do not, then it isn’t culture at all – it’s just words.
How do you get it?
If you want people to believe, then my opinion is you need to commit, fully, to a few non-negotiable tenants to build a successful, lasting culture:
- By the people, for the people – Each person needs a voice and say if you want them to believe and participate. Oh and leaders can’t be “too cool” to participate because dictatorships are lame.
- Values are non-negotiable – Temptations to break with the values of the organization happen every day. Consistency really matters, especially when it’s difficult.
- Fit matters – Often in technology we are in a rush to fill positions and sometimes we make compromises. We get hopeful. Fit for the person and the organization is just as important as competency.
What is xMatters’ culture?
Our culture is based on four core values: Honesty, Acceptance, Integrity and Respect, lovingly “HAIR.” Sounds like everyone else right? For us, no it is unique, immovable and non-negotiable. I can’t do it justice here but I will say each value is the bedrock of what we do and how we treat other humans (e.g. customers, partners, employees, alumni, investors, and so on). From our values we built tenants or “ways of doing stuff.” We focused on “Same Team,” “Insanely Great Service” and “Finish It.”
You can read more about our culture on Slideshare.
Once you have defined and built your culture, recognize that it is a living breathing thing. Pay attention to it so it grows and flourishes. Ignore at your own peril. And, well, I sorta ignored it…
Epic Fail and Recovery
So, culture is important, it maximizes shareholder value and you can build it. So how did I temporarily lose it? Well very slowly – by omission.
Lost it: Over time our culture sort of took a back seat to other priorities. We forgot to pay attention to it, we stopped talking about it, we stopped looking for “fit” in recruiting, we promoted managers and didn’t train them, we stopped asking for xPerts (employees) to opine on it, we didn’t cover it in new hire training, we didn’t talk about it all hands meetings, we just assumed “it was all good.” Over a couple of years, it became, “not all good.”
Found it: So, what do you do? Start over? We decided we needed help. So I turned to the people I trust, my fellow xPerts. I started by asking all of our folks to share thoughts with me. Luckily I received a lot of feedback – some harsh, but honest feedback. Thank goodness because silence is deadly. If folks don’t care enough to tell you, you have big problems.
Then we met together in small groups (4-5 people at a time across 250+ people). It was a lot of work but it was worth it to get a view of where we really were.
Still a fit? Then we had to have tough conversations with ourselves. We had to evaluate the culture, it’s relevancy and the fit of our folks. We concluded that we needed to dust it off, make some improvements, some folks opted out and left and we focused in on a few key things including consistency, fit, training, reinforcement, celebration, participation and evolution. We implemented a Slack channel to sound off and reward co-workers, culture is a topic at every all hands meeting, we published a slide share and are updating the website, I now meet with every new hire to talk about culture and we’re re-evaluating it frequently.
All good? Nope, we’re a work in progress. Check back with me when we’re done. Ha, as if!
If you seek a culture where people believe in “the team” as much as “self” then I believe you must commit to the “work of culture” authentically and continually. Even if you feel like it never succeeds, it’s worth the effort.