Early Advice 7: Shape Culture Proactively

In school, I studied physics and applied mathematics. I spent a long time thinking about formula and systems, analyzing data, and generally trying to quantify anything in sight.

Generally speaking, I bring that attitude into how I think about leading a company. Metrics are important, both to discover strengths and weaknesses, and to communicate the state of things.

Culture naturally resists quantitative metrics. (Not to say metrics don’t exist – there are a few – but none without fairly obvious gaps.) Because of this, it was easy for me to dismiss the importance of culture when I was still in school and merely speculating about what working at a company would be like.

Fast forward to today, and I haven’t really learned much to help me quantify the importance of culture. But nonetheless, I’ve been convinced.

Culture is really, really important.

In order to discuss this claim, I need to start by defining what I mean by culture. And mind you, even doing that is hard – culture is naturally a bit fuzzy – but I’ll give it a shot.

A company’s product is the what. Their customers are the why. Their employees are the who. Culture is the how.

Notice that this is a pretty large claim. There’s a lot in the “how” that might not traditionally be considered culture. But ultimately, culture is about people, and that’s what all questions of “how” boil down to – how do the people in the company operate?

I could spend a long time talking about the importance of different aspects of culture. Things like work/life balance; communication structures; hiring policies; reimbursements; harassment policies; and so much more. I likely will write posts on many such topics in the future.

But today’s post, rather than being about any particular question of culture, is more about the importance of defining some culture. In essence, my argument is simple. The very fact that culture is hard to measure makes it all the more important to define it clearly. The alternative is people having completely different expectations around how work is meant to get done, which will inevitably lead to friction.

OK. Hopefully that argument feels pretty straightforward – I don’t think too many people would disagree with it. But then the question becomes, what in particular am I suggesting we do to avoid this mistake? What qualifies as “defining culture”?

I’ve seen many companies try to define their culture using something like the following.

We’re world-class technologists excited to work on world-changing problems. We care deeply for each other, work on what we’re passionate about, and are united by our desire to make the world a better place.

Now then. Tell me – how much have you really learned from reading this paragraph? And, what’s more, what kinds of employees are being selected for by a paragraph like this?

In information theory, information itself is defined as, roughly, the degree to which one’s uncertainty is reduced when they receive it. So, given that definition, my problem with paragraphs like the above is that they convey almost no actual information.

This is bad for two reasons. Firstly, this non-description will fail to separate your company from the pack – and you have to be different to succeed. But, even more dangerously, the risk here is that, by effectively opting out of defining your culture, you’re leaving your actual culture up to chance.

With language like this, which doesn’t offend or raise disagreements with anybody, but also conveys no information, you’re likely to find a fairly scattered set of different candidates, with very different expectations, coming into your organization. They might all be great in their own ways, but without shared expectations, they’ll inevitably clash – and the aspects which eventually win out to become part of your culture will be decided simply by which of the random different types of people are earlier to join your company.

If you believe, as I do, that a good culture can be the difference between success and failure, this should terrify you. And the only way to avoid it is to define your culture up front – and do it in a way which conveys information. Which means defying someone’s expectations – which means there will be people out there who disagree.

It’s OK to say “you’re a great candidate but not a good fit for our culture!” That’s not a value judgement of a candidate. Companies do have different cultures, and often in ways that meaningfully impacts someone’s happiness. Some people just want to crush on difficult problems, and are totally fine working 12 hour days. Other people deliver the best results not through 12-hour days but through shorter work days allowing for more rest and inspiration. It would be nice to be able to accept any candidates, and give them each the experience best suited for them, but the reality is that that can’t always happen.

Your culture definitely needs to be able to accommodate certain kinds of differences from yourself – no company will succeed without a diversity of ideas and backgrounds driving it – but if there’s a real, meaningful culture difference, it’s crucial to be able to detect, explain, and act on it. And until you can crisply imagine a world-class candidate walking through your doors, and turning them away because they don’t match the culture you’re building, you haven’t yet truly defined your culture.

Yes, this is painful – it’s hard to turn away someone who otherwise seems so great because of a bad culture fit. But compared to the one rockstar that can’t mesh with the team, you’ll ultimately get far more value by bringing on great people whose expectations are aligned, and who will be able to collaborate, communicate, and kick ass together. And defining your culture clearly and explicitly is the best way to do that.

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