I used to think it was about the Canada Day celebration, family Christmas party, team-building retreat in cottage country and the millions of dollars donated each year to local groups and causes
But I now believe the secret sauce for this company’s standout culture was the senior executive team. Over the course of my career with five organizations, I’ve yet to see a more cohesive senior team in action.
There were no cliques, secret alliances or team of rivals. There was no backstabbing, grandstanding or gamesmanship. Not once in any one-on-one conversation did a senior executive ever gripe to me about a colleague.
Cohesion inspired confidence. Employees were confident in where the company was headed because we knew there were adults in the boardroom who weren’t acting like frat house bros or middle school tweens. The executive team took the company’s core value of respect and turned it into a personal virtue. How they treated one another set the standard for all the rest of us.
What you do and value most as a leader drives your organization’s culture, says Ben Horowitz, cofounder of a venture capital firm and tech start-up and author of What You Do is Who You Are: How To Create Your Business Culture.
“Who you are is not the values you list on the wall. It’s not what you say at an all-hands. It’s not your marketing campaign. It’s not even what you believe. It’s what you do. What you do is who you are.”
Leaders doing stupid, selfish and short-sighted things will turn your culture toxic. Horowitz says there are a few telltale signs that your culture’s broken. The wrong people are quitting too often. You’re consistently failing at your top priorities. And an employee does something that’s truly shocking. “If someone behaves in a way you can’t believe, remember that your culture somehow made that acceptable.”
Horowitz also warns against tolerating four culture breakers: fault-finding heretics who are forever building and making the case that your organization’s run by morons; totally unreliable flakes; self-righteous prophets of rage and smart-bad jerks. “Consistently asinine behavior from an executive can cripple a company,” says Horowitz. “If one of your big dogs destroys communication on your staff, you need to send him to the pound.”
It’s tempting to tolerate culture breakers for their moments of brilliance and outsized contributions. But again, what you do is who you are as an organization. Ignore misbehaviour and disloyalty at the top and it’ll run through your organization like a virus.
A great culture won’t automatically make your organization great. Culture won’t save a lousy or unwanted product or service. Horowitz says culture is like nutrition and training that gives an edge to already talented athletes.
“In the end, people who work for you won’t remember the press releases or the awards. They’ll lose track of the quarterly ups and downs. They may even grow hazy about the products. But they will never forget how it felt to work there, or he kind of people they became as a result.
“The company’s character and ethos will be the one thing they carry with them. It will be the glue that holds them together when things go wrong. It will be their guide to the tiny, daily decisions they make that add up to a sense of genuine purpose.”
The pandemic’s stripping workplace culture down to its essence, especially for organizations with remote teams. We’re reminded that it was never actually about dress down days, ice cream socials, barbecue lunches, pancake breakfasts and branded swag. It’s all about what your leaders do in public and behind closed doors.
This review first ran in the May 30 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager in McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.