Startup Culture: How to Build a Winning Culture From Ground Zero or -1
Who this post is for: This post is designed to provide practical advice for founders of new startups who are looking to establish a sound foundation for their cultures and for leaders who are working hard to turn around or reinvigorate their existing cultures.
My inspiration for this post comes from the startup environments and incredible teams I have had the opportunity to work with over the past 15+ years of my career, beginning with Autotrader.com when it was booming in the early 2000s, through the explosive growth and acquisition of MonsterCommerce by Network Solutions in 2006, then cofounding and selling a digital marketing agency in 2011, to, most recently, the journey of OneSpace, which was recently named one of the Top Workplaces in St. Louis.
Each of these businesses had a culture that was authentically theirs; no two teams have the same thumbprint. Though the outcomes of these startups were ultimately positive, each confronted their fair share of peaks, valleys and unexpected turns along the way. They managed to weather the toughest storms due to strong leadership, but more importantly, because of the unshakeable cultures that the teams created and were committed to upholding at all costs.
Building a strong culture takes vision, continuous assessment and deliberate action by the leaders of the company, but the bulk of culture is built by the team. In this post, I have distilled five key steps that founders can take to set their teams on the path to cultural greatness.
Step 1: Define a mission that is authentically you (the founder).
As a founder, distilling your vision into a mission that can be clearly articulated to your employees is one of the greatest contributions you will make to your company’s culture. Your mission will not only serve as a guiding light to your team, inspiring them in the most challenging times, but it will influence critical decisions along the journey, supporting sound judgement and helping the team understand how to prioritize their efforts.
Don’t take this step lightly, and don’t settle on something that sounds good but is not authentically you. As the leader of your organization, you are the embodiment of the mission, and your team will expect you to act in ways that align with your vision at all times, so make sure this statement is something you want to live and breathe every day.
At OneSpace, our mission is “To liberate the world from the confines of a conventional work model.”
Let’s break down why this statement is authentic and meaningful to our team:
- Liberate: “Liberate” is a powerful and aspirational word that is consistent with our vision. Our founders started this journey with the idea that they could change the way the world works – literally. They envisioned a society in which any given task could be matched, in an on-demand fashion, with an individual who possesses the appropriate skills to complete it, freeing businesses and employees from the inefficiencies and boundaries of a full-time employment model.
- World: In its most aspirational form, this vision of meritocracy would bring work opportunities to people around the globe and overturn the perception that the “right” talent must exist within the walls of your business. Our mission to disrupt conventional ways of thinking about work doesn’t have geographic boundaries, and our customers include our business clients, a global workforce of freelancers, and our own employees.
- Confines of a conventional work model: Status quo is our enemy, the antithesis of innovation. Fostering a culture of innovation is critical to our success, so this statement is designed to keep our team focused on breaking down conventional methods of thinking about business spaces, professional relationships, and ways to get work completed.
To ensure you have landed on the right mission statement, my advice is to live with it for at least a week, reviewing it daily before you move forward with sharing. Once you are committed, do not simply hang your mission statement on the wall and expect team members to be inspired by it. You need to establish buy-in, which is outlined in Step 3 below.
Step 2: Align with your leadership team on core values.
Much like your mission, your core values need to be authentic to your leadership team, and you should be willing to uphold them at all costs. What does “all costs” mean? It means you should be willing to terminate an employee, or refrain from hiring one, because they do not embody your core values. Sound harsh?
If your mission provides inspiration and focus for your team, your core values explain what you care about and how you will act – as a team – on your journey to success. If your core values accurately reflect the beliefs and behaviors that are most important to your team, then consider the negative impact that just one employee who disregards your values can have on your culture. A team member in an authority position who doesn’t uphold your core values can wreak havoc on an organization.
At OneSpace, we established seven core values and discussed them in depth with our team to ensure everyone understands the meaning and importance of each:
- Be an Expert
- Be Results-oriented
- Be Approachable
- Be a Positive Force
- Team Above Self
- This is More Than Just a Job
Once you have established your core values and received buy-in from your team (see Step 3), it is amazing how valuable they become to your organization in terms of guiding key decisions.
At OneSpace, we ensure that all new employees understand the importance of our values and can recite them by heart by the end of their onboarding experience. We use core values during the hiring process, in post-mortem reflections on terminations and regretted attrition, and as a means of providing feedback to our team members during performance reviews.
Our team has become remarkably successful in identifying people who will be a strong fit for our culture, and they’ve also become experts at delivering both positive and negative feedback that’s centered around our core values.
Step 3: Collect feedback and get buy-in.
I can’t emphasize enough how critical this step is to the success of building your culture. As a founder, your responsibility is to paint the picture and set things in motion, but it is the team that will ultimately build an authentic and unshakeable culture. If the team genuinely feels invested in the mission and core values and empowered to influence decisions and make individual contributions to the culture, magic will happen.
The key to success in this step is to host open discussions designed to collect feedback and solicit ideas from the team on how to carry out your mission and live your values every day. Please do not ask HR to take the wheel and drive culture from this point forward. Culture is the fabric of your entire organization, not the responsibility of a single department or an assigned group of people. Everyone needs to be bought in, and everyone needs to understand how they can contribute, both individually and as a team. Commit to hosting multiple discussions with various groups of people across the organization – leaders, new hires, and tenured employees.
The goal of these discussions is to clarify meaning, collect honest feedback, and get the creative juices flowing about how to transition from agreement on a stated mission and core values to living them every day.
Step 4: Let the team run with it.
At this point, you have delivered a clear mission, aligned on core values, incorporated feedback, and received buy-in from your team. Now it’s time to shift from the driver’s seat to a supportive role. Stepping back can be challenging at first, but seeing what the team does with their newly defined mission and values is the most rewarding aspect of cultural development. Support as many ideas as possible, let the team experiment, and make it clear they are empowered to drive their ideas ahead. Most importantly, be patient and communicate that the expectation is momentum in a positive direction, not instant change.
Our team continues to amaze me with their ideas for incorporating our values into everyday life at OneSpace. Here are some examples of what they came up with in our early discussions:
Values teams: We have many Harry Potter fans here at OneSpace, and they embraced the idea of “sorting” all team members into groups (or “houses”) that represent each of our seven core values. How? By using a quiz developed by one of our Engineering leaders. The self-assessment is designed to help team members identify which OneSpace value they embody the most. New team members are then “sorted” into their respective values teams during ceremonies performed in all- company meetings. Not only is this a fun activity during the onboarding process, but it creates instant camaraderie for new team members.
Quarterly gestures: Each of the seven values teams is responsible for making a quarterly “gesture” that reflects their team’s primary core value and reminds us of its importance. The creativity of these gestures and the positive morale impact they have continue to blow me away.
For example, Team Positive Force delivered a hand-written note to every single team member recognizing a specific contribution they made to OneSpace. Many team members (myself included) still have this note taped somewhere on their desk for inspiration when they need it most.
Team Respect is currently running an initiative to improve company meeting practices. The focus is on ensuring team members show up to meetings on time and prepared as a means of respecting each other and the costs associated with our time.
Team Approachable helped us find courage and reminded us that looks can be deceiving by bringing in a rare animal handler. This one really tested my ability to “let go,” but it turns out, even snakes can be approachable.
Company events: In the past, we had a designated “culture committee” and a culture leader who was paid to manage company events. It was an all-around positive experience, but the team decided that our new values teams were capable of managing these events moving forward. Now, all company events are created, planned and facilitated by volunteers from our values teams. Not only did this approach have a positive impact on our culture budget, but it provides new team members opportunities to step up and demonstrate leadership and project management skills.
I could write several posts about the great ideas, events, recognition practices, and other norms that have been established by our team and are now part of the authentic OneSpace experience. But the point is: It all started simply by asking the question “How can we live our values every day?”
Listen, be patient and supportive, and let things unfold. If you have the right people in place and they are authentically bought in to the vision, great things will happen.
Step 5: Establish KPIs and measure results.
We have a lot of fun at OneSpace, but it’s not all about sorting ceremonies, culture events and employee recognition. One of our core values is “Be Results-oriented,” and as a data-driven company, we aim to measure everything and share those results with the team. This includes the impact of our cultural efforts. Culture is a very organic thing that is constantly evolving and a highly subjective part of an employee’s experience with an organization, but it is not beyond measurable KPIs.
As with the establishment of any KPIs, we started by identifying the questions we were trying to answer, and then thought about what metrics we could use to measure performance. We had a lot of ideas, but after some distillation to keep things simple, we landed on the following questions and means of measuring performance:
There are plenty of options when it comes to tools for measuring these metrics. We opted to implement a pulse surveying tool called TinyPulse. TinyPulse provides weekly pulse surveys designed to measure employee engagement over time and benchmark against industry trends. It allows you to create our own custom surveys, so we can ask the team questions such as “How well do we live our core values?” As an added bonus, TinyPulse also provides a platform for team members to deliver feedback to leadership in a safe, anonymous format, which has helped us uncover many valuable insights.
Building the right “People Success” technology stack is a topic for another post, but what is most important in this phase is that you find a tool or a combination of tools that allows you to measure trends in your established success metrics over time. We prefer pulse surveys because they are minimally disruptive and provide weekly insights, as opposed to the conventional annual survey method that only delivers insights as a snapshot in time.
The most important aspect of measurement, however, is how you react. Data for the sake of having data doesn’t drive anything forward. Honest and continuous assessment, listening to team feedback, and providing transparent communication around successes and failures are the keys to any successful business culture. Make sure you are turning insights into action.
There are hundreds of decisions a week that will impact your culture and your business, and each of the five steps above could be the subject of many posts that go deep in one particular area of focus. However, the five steps above will help you lay the foundation for a company culture that is authentic to your vision, unique to your team, and unshakeable as you move forward on your journey to success.