3 Questions To Ensure Excellent Start-Up Culture

Culture is all-powerful.

No matter how strong-willed, stubborn, or determined you might be, culture will win the day. An organization’s culture will move the organization like wind that uproots deeply rooted trees.

No matter the size and stature of the tree, it is powerless to the wind — powerless to the forces of mother nature. Culture is much like mother nature.

Yet, they’re not totally identical.

The key difference between the two: we create culture, the tree does not create the wind.

It’s only after we create the culture that it becomes like the wind (and then us like the tree).

So, this being the case it seems obviously important that we should care about cultivating a healthy, robust and sustainable culture. A culture which, when it pushes us (i.e. the inevitable), will only take us closer to our goals, more in the direction we wish to travel.

Start-ups represent the place of conception for culture.

For organizations, culture-making happens in start-ups. Start-ups are where the roots are laid. But due to the fast-moving and demand-heavy nature of start-ups, intentional culture building is often neglected. The tree is haphazardly planted in its soil with roots barely reaching below the surface if at all.

No one to blame here, by the way. In fact, my suspicion about why this occurs so frequently is due to the culture that has already been laid before.

You see, we don’t just start building a company in a culture-less vacuum. Instead, we start in an environment that’s screaming at us to fundraise, to nail down our value-proposition, to make our product look sexy, and to “make it” via acquisition.

Not inherently evil messages, but messages that can — and often do — distract from the important “planting” process.

While it’s never too late to start caring about your culture, the longer you do wait the more difficult the project becomes.

Start now, then, and consider these three questions. Doing so will help ensure an excellent start-up culture.

What are our values and how will we remain accountable to them?

The first part will likely be the more familiar part to you.

Writing down your values and making them public (to your team and to your clients or customers) is an incredibly important culture-building move for start-ups.

Your values ultimately tell the world what you believe and what moves you — or at least they should.

Values inspire your team members; values communicate to the world what you’re about; values express an organization’s sense of ethical consideration. Values, clearly enough, are crucially important.

But you know what you hardly see in organizations, start-up or otherwise? An accountability plan.

In other words, how will we continue to embody these values as an organization? And how will we know if we’re not embodying these values?

As complicated or fatiguing as this last piece may sound, it’s actually quite simple.

Start by checking in with your team on a monthly or quarterly basis with the following questions: “Hey team, how do you feel like we’re doing with embodying our values? Do you think we’re falling short anywhere?”

To be honest, there’s not a lot more you can do than involving the members of your team and board to hold you accountable.

Do not “set and forget” your values. They’re not books on a bookshelf; they’re a compass always in hand guiding your what, how and why.

How will our clients, customers or partners think of us 10 years from now?

This question will be very closely connected to the first one about values.

Every customer or client conversation you’re having (prospective or not) is forming something. Much like all of your marketing, these conversations and exchanges are forming your image — the way you show up in the world.

Everyone knows PR (public relations) is essential. Not everyone is sensitive to all the ways in which an organization’s PR is constructed, however.

An organization’s PR presence is never established by one swift marketing campaign or by landing one well-known client.

Instead, it’s established by the day to day operations. The things you say and don’t say in sales meetings; the things you post and don’t post on social media. All of it is determining how your clients, customers and partners will think of you 10 years from now.

So we invite you to work backwards. How do you want your clients, customers or partners to be thinking of you a decade from now? What are the things you want them to be saying about you, your team and your organization?

Now, what are the things you need to do in order for them to be saying and thinking those things? Do those things and the roots of your culture tree will reach deeper and deeper by the day.

How will decisions get made in our organization?

Decision-making procedures are fascinating processes. We’re all probably most accustom to them in our family systems.

If you can, think on your own family’s approach to decisions.

How decisions get made in a family can say a lot about the family and thus how decisions get made in a family has serious impact on the family.

Such is also true for organizations. In many ways, the approach to making decisions in an organization is monumental in its effect on culture.

Notice, though, that I’m not necessarily recommending that decisions be made in this way or that way. Every start-up is different and so the needs for decision making are different. My push to you is to think and talk about decision-making procedures for your team.

  • Will only a few select people be decision makers?
  • Will feedback be requested from a broader portion of the team for bigger decisions?
  • Will feedback be requested after decisions have been made?

The goal here is robust and healthy culture. Decision making is an integral part of that. So give it some thought and make adjustments where needed.

Written by: Bryan Forbes

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