What is company culture?
First things first, let’s define what we mean by company or start-up culture. A common misconception about company culture is that a dog-friendly office, artisan snacks and barista coffee are vital components. These are workplace perks, and whilst they are not unimportant, they are not culture-defining.
Your culture is the driving force behind your goals. It is a shared collection of values, beliefs and behaviours that everyone in your organisation is accountable for and feels motivated to uphold. It’s a combination of core values, vision, mission and purpose and, in an ideal world, relates directly to your talent strategy.
At Forward Partners, we remind each other of the following behaviours, beliefs and values on an almost daily basis:
- Purpose: To give founders their best shot at success.
- Mission: To build the UK’s leading and most admired early-stage investor.
- Vision: A world where every founder will reach their potential.
- Behaviours: Bold, caring and wise.
Is culture even more important in a remote-first world?
One of our participants raised a really important point about values in a remote-first world and how clarity was even more crucial in this type of environment. Without face-to-face interaction, it was even more important to ensure culture and values fed down from the people and talent team to the wider team who were responsible for interviewing, employee onboarding and retention.
Creating and nurturing a strong company culture is essential for the success of any startup. Follow these steps to define your company culture:
- Identify your core values: Start by identifying the core values that your startup represents. These values should be aligned with your mission and vision and should guide the decisions and actions of your team. Examples of core values include things like teamwork, innovation, and customer focus. Some startups don’t take this step and, as they scale, culture-related issues can quickly come to a head.
- Repeat and reinforce: Regularly communicate the values to the whole company by holding weekly town hall meetings, sending out a monthly newsletter, or creating a company-wide Slack channel. Values only work when everyone understands what the company stands for therefore, what behaviours are expected. In a remote-first environment, take the time to establish how to feed this into your video calls regularly.
- Define your vision and mission: Your company culture should be built around a shared vision and mission. Your vision is the long-term goal that you want to achieve, while your mission is the concrete actions you will take to get there. Make sure your vision and mission are clear, concise, and inspiring, and communicate them regularly to your team.
- Involve your team: Your startup culture should be a reflection of the people who work for you. Involve your team in defining and shaping your culture. Ask for their input on core values, vision, and mission, and encourage them to provide feedback on how the company can better embody these values. This will create a sense of ownership and investment in the company culture, which will help to reinforce it over time.
- Actively seek out feedback: Be deliberate in seeking out feedback from your team members to identify areas for improvement and promote a culture of openness and collaboration.
- Lead by example: As a startup leader (or perhaps a founder), it’s your job to ensure that you and your management team lead by example. With limited face-to-face interactions, over-indexing on the values virtually can make all the difference when building your startup.
- Get social: Create opportunities for virtual social interaction, team building and collaboration to reinforce a sense of company culture and community, such as setting up virtual coffees, group learning events such as lunch and learns and activities that relate to key events in the social calendar.
- Recognise and celebrate achievements: At Forward Partners, we do this via Bonusly, company-wide emails and Slack channels. Public praise is a great way to show that even if you are all working remotely.
Pros and cons of passive culture development.
For others in the room, culture evolved with the team, and values had perhaps been written down but not regularly referred to - instead, it was the output of everyone’s work and contributions that mattered.
This approach is a truly authentic way to craft your culture, which doesn’t feel cheesy, forced or fake in any way. It also gives a good degree of flexibility, allowing you to adapt it as your business progresses.
Whilst passive culture development may work in the very early stages of a startup, our talent dinner attendees agreed that at a certain stage along the journey, culture needs to be more intentional and direct. Over time, messages around values and behaviours may start to feel inconsistent and unclear, which can lead to misunderstandings and misaligned expectations. Leaving much open to interpretation with this style of culture development, you may also find that employees who have been with your business for a while could have a different perspective when compared to your new starters. Without the rigidity of an intentional culture, negative behaviours may not be addressed or corrected using the framework of the company values to guide that feedback.
My take on passive vs intentional culture development.
For me, best practice culture development is intentional. It is music to my ears when I hear from portfolio companies who are putting thought into it as early as possible, thinking about how they articulate what they do, why they do what they do, why it’s important and how someone can feel part of that. That feeling of belonging may develop over time, but being intentional about it keeps you present and accountable for what you are creating and also acts as a self-intervention tool if any factors come into play that compromise what you’re trying to build.
How to build an intentional culture.
When starting to shape your company culture, values are a great place to start. Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, published his thoughts on early-stage culture development back in 2014, stating:
“Culture is living the core values when you hire; when you write an email; when you are working on a project; when you are walking in the hall. We have the power, by living the values, to build the culture. We also have the power, by breaking the values, to f*ck up the culture. Each one of us has this opportunity, this burden.”
For me, this is a nod to how the participation of all parties in successfully building a value-led culture is crucial, particularly managers leading by example - their actions speak louder than the words printed out on the wall.
One of THE most effective ways to embed values into a startup is to involve your team, or at least your team leaders, in selecting them as a group. Doing so ensures you’re leading by example, with a united front, and there’s no misalignment on what your culture and values are, why they’re important and what good examples of them are. Your core values should be the foundation as you define your startup's culture and set the tone for how you conduct business.
Once the values have been defined, with buy-in from important stakeholders in the business, it’s now time to cement them into the day-to-day of your startup. This means thinking about ways you can always put them front and centre. Employees should have tangible examples of what they mean in practice on a day-to-day basis. Doing this means your employees understand what a good example of your values looks like and why they matter.
There are many ways to do this here are some of the most common ideas from our group of talent leaders:
- Communicate your values - as regularly and consistently as you can. Share them during onboarding and training and include them in your company handbook and careers site.
- Share feedback in a way that is directly linked to your company values
- Set up fun team nominations for people who have displayed these values,
- Build frameworks to describe good and bad examples of values in practice to encourage consistency in decision-making at interviews.
- Hire people who share your values - ensure your interview process is set up to explore this with candidates.
What do clear values and company culture mean to startup leaders?
Beyond ensuring that the whole business has a shared passion and connection to the mission of their business, good company culture and clear values can also have a huge impact on the success of managers within a startup.
Living by your startup’s values in a clear and unambiguous way means that your managers also have:
- A clear cheat sheet on what behaviours are and aren’t acceptable in your startup.
- An easy way to establish under-performance and over-performance against the values most important to the business
- A codified way to behave to their new reports (making the transition easier for them)
At our Talent Dinner, many of the people leaders in attendance said that manager training had been neglected at times within their fast-paced startups. There was unanimous agreement that sometimes outstanding individual contributors are promoted to manager roles and are often expected to automatically be great managers. Without a strong company culture in place, supported by a clear vision, mission and purpose alongside values which are upheld by everyone in the business, new managers will have a much tougher time as they navigate their new roles.
To wrap up.
Poor startup culture can have a hugely damaging impact - you can’t cover the cracks of an unstable company culture with artisan coffee and free snacks. Employees have never been so vocal about it either.
Being purposeful around your culture as early as possible will lay the foundations of an empowering, healthy and engaging start-up culture early on, and you’ll be more likely to reap the wider-reaching benefits as a result. In addition to this, the sooner you are intentional about supporting your managers to lead by example, the easier this will follow.
Nailing the people part early on helps to encourage high levels of employee engagement, motivation and retention. Over time, you should also notice that hiring the right people becomes easier as you can quickly see whether a person’s values align with your company’s values. You should also see more willingness for your teams to go above and beyond when it really matters. In an ideal world, you’ll get there intentionally, but there was consensus around the table that getting there itself is key so that values can trickle down to all parts of your evolving people strategy.