I got into a little Twitter debate the other day about whether it is possible to teach founders to build a good company culture. The answer, I believe, is more ambiguous than just “yes” or “no”.
There’s definitely a case to be made for teaching a founder some best practices of how to build the startup culture they want and mean to build. If, for example, you’re trying to build a top-down, hierarchical organisation, because that’s your thing and that’s what represents your values best, there are definitely ways to do it and ways not to do it. The same is true of consensus-based organisations, and even of open cultures (the name I’m trying to coin for the sort of culture we’re building at GrantTree). Right now, for example, I’m learning a tremendous amount from this book, which, however new-agey the intro, is full of great data about how a dozen other open organisations manage themselves, what best practices they’ve all evolved over decades of operation, etc.
So yes, you can teach culture. But you can only teach it if the founder is ready for it – nay, demands it, thirsts for it, needs it.
Who are you?
Your company culture’s foundational building block will inevitably be who you are as a founder or team of founders. By that, I mean that your values, your personal development, and your larger goals in life, will inexorably shape the culture that you build. There’s no use writing the word “transparency” on the wall if it’s not something you personally value. It will just ring hollow and devalue your message that “we care about values here”.
This leads to a startling insight that is very worrying to most startup founders: the only way you can ensure you build a great company culture is by growing on a personal level.
As a founder myself, I am bothered about this insight. I don’t like it. It feels dangerous and risky, because personal growth is not really under my control1. Some events will naturally compel personal growth through extreme emotions, others will find such growth in reading, or in talking to other people, or even in taking drugs or meditating or going to church. Each of us has our own way of growing and discovering ourselves. But one commonality is it always takes time and the rate of progress is largely out of our control.
Startup founders, operating in a sea of chaos and trying to make some order out of it, are often desperate for control. Ironically, or perhaps elegantly, part of personal growth in life is to realise that this quest for control is obsolete and irrelevant, to let go of illusions of control, to realise that there never was any control to begin with, just a delusion. Most people go through those phases in their personal lives, eventually. Parenthood certainly forces that insight on most people – creating another independent human being is the ultimate surrender of control.
Analogously to parenthood, trying to control your company’s every step instead of letting it thrive and having some faith in your and your colleagues’ abilities to change course if required, will result in a tortured company where everyone is clinging to that illusion and passing it on downwards to their minions.
This is not only applicable to control and trust as a value dichotomy, but to every value that you hold dear as a person. Whoever you are, whatever your values are, they will come through in the way that you build your company. You can’t hide from that. But there is something you can do.
How to build a better culture
If you can’t hide from who you are, the obvious thing you can do to build a better company culture is to actively seek out opportunities for personal growth. Unfortunately, the awfully saccharine self-help industry has been polluting the idea of personal growth for decades by vomiting uncountable numbers of nauseous books, videos, seminars, cult-like groups, coaches into the public consciousness, with little or no filtration of what’s good and what’s not. Self-help’s reputation, like the field of SEO or Social Media consultants, is rife with crass commercialism that seeks not to help, but to make a buck.
However, this doesn’t mean that the concept of personal growth itself is polluted, only that one must be more deliberate and particular about which inputs to accept. And, given the above conclusion, that who we are will have a huge impact on the kind of company culture we build, it is paramount that we do not let the tide of the self-help industry’s dross slow down our own personal growth.
So, the first thing we must do to ensure we build a better culture is to not only allow ourselves to grow, but also seek out this personal growth. As a founder but also as a human being, I am in a constant struggle to temper my natural skepticism towards all this “new age stuff” about meditation, presence in the moment, compassion, and life in general, because amidst all the dross are some very valuable lessons.
Once upon a time, I wrote an article positing that there were three kinds of games, with the larger, most fundamental ones being games of self, which are about finding boundaries within yourself and pushing them out, about transcending the internal limitations of your mind, your self, who you are. One of the more tangible and immediate paybacks of this game of self is that you will be able to build a better culture.
Today’s lesson is simple, then:
To build a better culture, become a better person.
It’s simple, and terribly difficult at the same time, but it’s the only way, because you can’t hide from yourself.
There are ways to encourage it, to create opportunities for it, and to more consistently seize those opportunities. But you can no more speed up personal growth than you can the growth of a tree. You can make it easier for growth to happen, but you can’t force it.↩