Building a Great Company Culture
Conversocial - Christmas 2011
Conversocial started in 2009 with just a few of us sitting together in the corner of the iPlatform office. 18 months later and we had moved to our own office, but there was still just six of us, all working together, day in day out. I was always interested in articles about company culture, but it was largely irrelevant - we were the company culture. I was interacting with everyone in the team every day. Either we acted in a certain way or we didn’t - there was no need to write it down.
In the last year we’ve grown from ten people to over thirty. Everyone in the company is now in a functional team with their own leader. We have offices in London and New York; and I travel between them every month. This means that some new hires hardly interact with me day-to-day; or even see me at all in their first few weeks, if I’m in our other office.
This is a difficult time for a growing company. Many start-ups, when they go through this stage, end up with a bad company culture. The values that were in their small founding team get dissipated. They end up with middle-management, internal politics, and cross-team committees. They make bad decisions - or slow decisions. They fail to innovate on their product. They struggle to deliver great service to their customers. Their best staff leave, taking valuable knowledge with them.
It was really important to me that this didn’t happen at Conversocial. I want to build an amazing company. A great place to work, with committed staff, awesome products, and happy customers. So how could I ensure that we kept the great culture we’d built as a small initial team now that we were growing up?
I started researching and reading everything I could about building company culture, and I tried to articulate our own culture in a meaningful way. I thought it would be straightforward - but it turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Something would sound great in my head, but it would come out on the page as meaningless management dribble. I’d try again every couple of weeks, and share with my leadership team and board… and often got the same feedback: sounds great, but what does it actually mean? How does this change actual behavior?
I decided to split my answers into two sections:
1. What kind of company are we building?
This was the easier part. It was logical and thought out; and relatively easy to articulate. It was based on decisions that had been actively discussed by management (e.g. our no committee rule; how we use OKRs (objectives and key results), that we buy lunch for everyone every day).
2. What are our values?
This was where it got much harder. After re-writing, and re-writing, and tearing my hair out in frustration at my lack of ability to articulate something I knew was so important, I had a revelation. It was one simple thought - what kind of behavior makes me want to keep and promote someone? I started to think back to times when I’d felt really happy about someone in the team, and what had caused it. From this I was able to quickly articulate the behavior and values we look for.
I spent some time creating a presentation about our culture. I talked through it with our leadership team and board, and presented it to everyone in the company. Then I implemented a new practice: on the first day of every new starter, I sit down with them for an hour to go through the background and history of the company, and talk them through the culture we are trying to create. The presentation I go through is embedded below.
Company culture only exists if it is actually carried out by everyone in the company; by me as CEO, our leadership team, and every individual. I’ve always encouraged everyone in the company to speak out when they disagree; and I explicitly ask everyone to ensure that all of us - leadership included - act in accordance with these values.
As we grow, and learn, and add more team members and experience, I expect our culture to evolve. This is a living document; although created to help make and define our culture, as soon as it stops becoming a reflection of reality it becomes worthless. And it is now up to everyone in the company to help contribute and add to our culture as we grow.
Here are a few great articles and presentations on company culture I learnt from:
If you have others, let me know. I would love to read them and share.
Tweet this post if you like it. Follow me on Twitter here.