What characteristics of corporate culture make or break startups?

I am fortunate to be able to moderate many interesting group discussions. These are usually health care or investment and sometimes gender issues. But recently I got to participate in a different discussion and it was quite informative.

BIOCOM and Slones Partners co-hosted an event titled Culture as Cornerstone: Bay Area Perspective – Activating Senior Executives To Build Thriving Cultural Environments. The focus was on workplace culture – what defines it, what builds it, what ruins it.

The program itself was not focused on the life sciences, although all participants were. They included:

Boy George wasn’t involved although he was the first thing I think of when I hear the word “culture,” at least since he came out during my college days.

But culture is a big subject that we don’t talk about enough. As someone who invests in small businesses where culture is really, really important to bottom lines, this is something I think about almost all the time when I am diligent in companies and sit on theirs. boards, but not always as consciously as I probably should.

A company’s culture can make or break. If the culture is toxic, nothing good comes out of it – and I’ve seen this firsthand. If the culture is thriving, people find their way into your workforce and growth follows; luckily I saw that too. Since culture is the sum of people, it’s an extension of the idea that the most important part of a business’s success is the team, which almost all investors would agree is true. Those who disagree are simply wrong. What can I tell you?

So while I don’t usually hang out among the HR managers who live and breathe this stuff, I was interested to hear the conversation, which I was able to do as the panel moderator.

I admit that I have always thought of the corporate culture as the “personality” of the place, the panel did not agree with me at all, so I avoided them. No seriously, here’s how they defined it:

  • The culture of a company is defined by the way it makes decisions;
  • The culture of a company is defined by what is rewarded versus what is punished;
  • The culture of a company is defined by the transmitted behaviors which guide its evolution over time.

These are clearly not the same as “personality”, but they are related. Or at least that’s what I tell myself to justify my mistake. I was particularly struck by the first definition and have thought about it a lot since. I think that’s certainly a key part of what defines culture – necessary but not sufficient. Decisions can be made in many ways, but if people generally feel empowered to make decisions Where trusting leadership to make good decisions with or without a lot of input, it can be okay. When people are just taking orders, not so much (although there might be military exceptions, who knows?). But I have been in workplaces and at junior work levels where decision making was very concentrated and the culture still healthy and saw companies where decision making was widely diffused within the company. team and was a disaster – the empowered masses just weren’t making good decisions for lack of knowledge and experience.

All of this led to a discussion of the distinction between culture (which was defined as behavioral above) and climate, which is more of the ‘fun’ or more superficial aspects of a workplace, like beer and artisanal coffee or the omnipresence of those damn polar vests that have become the dress code of Silicon Valley (see best Instagram account ever, courtesy of Scott Lenet). And while we dwell on the semantics, I appreciated Eric’s definition of his own business culture as irreverent and alcoholic – I guess it’s more about climate than culture, isn’t isn’t it Eric?

We also had an in-depth discussion on whether culture is defined by the leader at the top or if it emerges from the unwashed greats (or as HR would probably call it, the employee base). Personally, I think a lot of the culture is placed at the top – maybe not just the CEO, but the one to three people who run the company usually set the tone that others follow. Yet my fellow panelists both agreed and disagreed with me on this one. There was emphatic agreement that small businesses, especially those run by founders, have a top-down culture and this is critical to their initial success.

But we also discussed how culture can be set up by the ‘middle’, aka agitators, who make things happen and create their own organizations with their own cultures, which together contribute to the total sum of the money. culture of an organization. We discussed how large companies can have different cultures in different departments and especially in different buildings and between geographies. One of the panelists explained how important it is for management to spend time in every building, regardless of location, in order to spread the corporate culture more evenly, which of course proves that my top-down theory also applies to large companies. But it’s so true, in fact.

I have worked in many places that have more than one floor where you can feel the difference as soon as the elevator door opens. Likewise, the difference in a company from one country to another reflects not only the corporate culture, but also the societal culture. I’m not going to list all the stereotypes (fleece vests, taped kombucha) for each country (yes, it was just Palo Alto), but you can imagine the difference from here and Switzerland or here and Japan. . People are just the sum total of their experiences and where they come from is a part of it. This is why anyone can say in an instant that I am from New Jersey (exit 9).

The super fun part of the discussion was about companies with a reputation for great or awful cultures. It took Theranos and Uber less than half a second to arrive. Guess what category they were in? As for the winners, Netflix has been widely regarded as the best because of its commitment to transparency and rewarding good performance (and punishing poor performance). Other revered cultures inhabit Zappos (a democratic decision-making structure), Wegmans (for their genuine commitment to health as a mission – if Jane is reading this, you’re nodding your head right now), and Patagonia, too. for its commitment to the environment. Interestingly, there was a unanimous view that biotech companies have “nicer” cultures than tech companies because they are mission-oriented. Personally, I’ll go with “it depends” on that one (Martin shkreli anybody?).

We have covered so much (including gender, breed, open floor plans versus offices, even the role of plants) that it will be a book if I try to cover everything, so I will end with the advice given. by the panel on how to learn more about a company’s culture when interviewed. Here are the questions HR asks you to ask:

  • How are decisions made?
  • What would you most like to change in the culture of the company and why? What are you doing to change it and who is doing it?
  • What kind of people are successful here and who is igniting and why?

You should also ask questions that spark what you want to find in the culture when you go somewhere, like “What kind of beer and kombucha are on tap?” Oh wait, it’s the weather. But you get the drift.

And finally, one panelist said something that I think is particularly insightful to those of you starting businesses and hoping to instill a strong, positive culture: “Culture is spread through storytelling. ” So true. Stories are essential to every culture and mission. I have wrote about it before and telling a great story is one of the most important things any leader needs in their arsenal.

Thanks to Slone Partners and BIOCOM for a really interesting discussion and to my fellow panelists – it was great fun.

Photo: Getty Images

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