Our team is growing at my beloved Clausehound.com, and that is great. It is no longer a big panic to get from version to version or from demo to demo. New staff and old staff are starting to create their own groups of friends and this has prompted me to think about the kind of culture that we want to be known for.
We have a pretty good filter with which to recruit new members of our team. We use the SWAN methodology to hiring (I referred to that in this article: smart, works hard, ambitious, nice). But hiring “swans” isn’t the same as defining culture, as I’ve found out.
Defining our culture
I’m learning as I go that recruiting new team members is just the first step. How they interact with each other, our customers and how they conduct themselves in pursuit of our company goals is the culture.
Merriam-Webster defines culture as the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time. Therefore culture isn’t just a “me” thing, obviously, because by definition it requires a group of people. So culture is a function of our people - culture is the “glue” that keeps our team in sync. It’s recognizable, comforting and bonding. Many say that leadership defines the culture? Since I’m in a leadership role, what do I value? I place a high value on personal growth, loyalty and meritocracy. Those are good values.
Do my actions convey those values? Most times, I think - but I’m sure that I’ve been brusque at the office at times - I know my strengths but I also know my flaws. That makes me think that culture should also be aspirational.
So how do you define culture? I survey the landscape for clues. Countries and provinces have cultures, political parties and religions have cultures, families have cultures and companies have cultures. I will examine a few.
Cultural examination in brief: Bell Mobility
When I think of a great culture experience, I think back to my first job out of university - a bit of lucky timing landed me a job at Bell Mobility in its growth phase (early 90s) when cellular telephones were new and all of the early cellular phone companies were competing for subscribers. Things moved very fast and management was constantly trying to find people to “fill gaps” and to solve problems, with an underlying desire to win the market.
I was quickly promoted into a management position even before I graduated from the University of Waterloo, a decision which I can attribute to the Bell Mobility start-up culture of trying things, breaking things, making fast decisions and rewarding ambition. I don’t recall what their culture statement was, so I dug into an article written by our then CEO Bob Ferchat, and have paraphrased our culture to be “effective, entrepreneurial creativity”. Summarizing my thoughts on culture from above, I have developed the following culture criteria in order to put this culture statement to the test:
- Aspirational - Yes
- Recognizable - I don’t know. It wasn’t something that I was introspective about at the time.
- Bonding/Comforting - Yes. It was cool to be part of a massively growing company.
- Aligns with the leadership/company’s values - Yes. I was named a manager at a young age, which I didn’t think about too much at that time, but in retrospect that probably was because the company was going through massive growth and had a risk-taking, empowerment culture.
- Aligns with the customers’ values - Yes
- Supports business goals - Yes
- Organizational capability - with the deep pockets of its parent company Bell Canada Enterprises, and holdings including the largest telecommunications company in Canada at that time, the organization had the financial ability to foster their cultural message. The rest was up to us, the employees, and the sentiment certainly aligned with this statement.
Cultural examination in brief: McKinsey and Company
McKinsey and Company is a company that is well regarded for its focused approach to solving complicated business problems for large organizations. My business school friends and colleagues who have worked at McKinsey certainly have very similar characteristics of brains, fast and effective analysis to break down problems and to propose solutions, orientation to take action, and they are also generally nice people. The sentiment of credibility for hiring McKinsey and Company or recommending a former McKinsey employee for a role makes them an ideal company for cultural consideration.
They have published the following cultural statement: “to create an unrivaled environment for exceptional people”. Let’s test it against the culture criteria:
- Aspirational - Yes, anyone who wants to work with exceptional people would want to work here (or hire from here)
- Recognizable - I almost certainly remember all of my MBA classmates who work at McKinsey, Bain, BCG ATK and a few other top banks and law firms as being exceptional - so yes.
- Bonding/Comforting - I would think that the reputation creates a sense of shared pride, and is confidence building.
- Aligns with leadership/company’s values - Yes - exceptional people will develop exceptional solutions to complicated problems.
- Aligns with customers’ values - Yes
- Supports business goals - Yes
- Organizational capability - Maintaining this reputation would intuitively drive the desire to adhere to this cultural statement, and with multiple billions per year in consulting revenues, they would presumably have the budget to develop internal programs and practices to promote this cultural statement.
Cultural examination in brief: Starbucks
Starbucks provides the following vision statement: “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”. They have a cultural statement that is separate from the vision, but I find that the cascading statements can get very complicated to think about, so I’d like to consider only the vision for the purpose of this analysis.
I debated this statement with a colleague - Starbucks with its global corporate footprint could be seen as the opposite of inspiring, when compared to quirky cute or funky local coffee shops. But let’s see how this measures up against my cultural criteria:
- Aspirational - Yes, who wouldn’t want their human spirit to be nurtured?
- Recognizable - The culture of cheerful, warm, receptive baristas is recognizable.
- Bonding/Comforting for the employees -The Starbucks HR practices include higher tier health benefits and payment for tuition, and these are aligned with the premise of “nurturing” and “inspiring” the human spirit.
- Aligns with leadership/company’s values - Yes
- Aligns with customers’ values - Yes. I disagree with my colleagues comments above. In the past year I’ve popped open my laptop and jumped on wifi for the 45 minutes that it took to cool and drink my hot and caffeine intense Starbucks in Ottawa, Kingston, London Ontario, London UK, Paris, Boston and Baltimore. From my experience, encountering friendly people in a comfortable safe place, recharging my brain with strong coffee, and cranking out some necessary work and personal emails or getting a quick video chat in with my wife or my team, aligns with their cultural statement.
- Supports business goals - Intuitively, creating an experience of soul nourishment is aligned with paying $6 for a coffee.
- Organizational capability - The culture statement seems to align with the hiring practices, which makes me think that recruiters have taken to hear the importance of the cultural consistency. And with a current market capitalization of $82 billion, Starbucks has the budget to carry out this culture statement.
Cultural examination: our company
Ultimately, everyone has to go to work - where you are going to do that should reflect your own culture, and it is my hope that our chosen culture is one that creates a lasting bond.
So who are we? Me - I am intellectually curious, I like to get out of my desk, do things/try things, meet people, to understand things. So is the case for the customers and members of my beloved Clausehound.com, they are DIY’ers, who want to learn, who would like to read the details and fine print, and to think about the documents that they are signing. And our team are intellectually curious too, and they are “swans”. It’s non-stop learning for our young and growing team, both informally, and formally - you’ll see our team members huddled up at company growth training programs, or huddled around our training sessions held by our senior software engineers.
Organizationally, our budget is not a Starbucks, McKinsey or BCE budget, but we’ve gone a long way by giving our young team a lot of responsibility and in doing so, by creating a massive learning experience.
The common theme to all of this is learning and personal growth, for us, and for our customers.
Therefore, and open for discussion and refinement, I propose the following culture statement for my beloved Clausehound.com:
Better learning, better insights, better actions.
Next: developing our learning plan.