Real company culture has nothing to do with perks

By Editor December 29, 2015

kashifheadshotfinal.pngCulture is not a Ping-Pong table with a ‘Work Hard Play Hard’ sign on it. It is not a company-branded hoodie or Invite Your Parents to Work Day. These things are distractions.

Real culture grows organically. It originates when company values are set. In the rush to scale and please investors, many executives mistake ‘stuff’ for culture, endangering the very success they seek to create. They find out too late that no number of Nespresso machines or chair massages can offset chaos. Only when leaders understand values as the backbone of culture will the desired outcome emerge—often all by itself.

The temptation of a cookie-cutter approach

“If I had an hour to solve a problem,” Albert Einstein once said, “I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solutions.” So it is with the company vision and mission. Cement your values, think about who you need on your team in order to manifest them, and the rest comes naturally.

Too many companies see a cookie-cutter approach to culture as a quick fix for their people problems. Fact is, cookie cutters only work for those who invented the cookies. Google prospered by hiring the smartest people available and providing perks that inhibited workers’ desire to ever leave the company campus. Amazon capitalized from ‘unreasonably high’ standards of performance to establish almost robotic levels of efficiency.

These models cannot be mirrored. Amazon’s success does not prove that Machiavellian leadership is the best model for all tech companies. Amazon’s culture works because its vision is to be massive by building “a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” Contrast that with being “on the face of this earth to make great products” (Apple) or using “business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis” (Patagonia). These stated values all inspire different teams and approaches. Know yours, and your culture will come naturally.

A cookie as old as time

Today’s cookie-cutter culture involves free cucumber water and standing desks, but the tendency to imitate culture has been around for decades. Each cultural meme has worked for some companies, and destroyed a good number of others.

In the 1950s, the cookie-cutter approach involved a Mad Men-style approach to business, relegating women to secretarial roles without regard for their potential to lead, despite obvious successes like of Lord & Taylor President Dorothy Shaver and Seventeen ad exec Estelle Ellis. In the 1980s, cookie-cutter culture emphasized personal ambition and profit over social and environmental responsibility, birthing cultural heroes like Gordon Gekko and tragedies like the Bhopal chemical spill, for which Union Carbide subsequently denied fault. Today, collaborative workspaces and bias towards overworking youth trump considerations of individual work styles. This punctuates the success of everyone from introverts to Baby Boomers, and cuts off businesses from recruiting the ideal team.

Find cultural footing before you scale

Culture is not something to piece together with a few choice components, like modular programming or IKEA furniture. Rather, culture is built on mission and vision. Everything else sprouts organically from that core value system.

In order to establish the core values that fertilize a successful culture, you must combine aspirational statements with the reality of your industry and workplace.

1. Take time to craft (or revisit) concise, specific vision and mission statements. They will act as a True North to all of your subsequent recruiting and team-building efforts, as well as give workers a sense of why they’re with your company in the first place. Zappos’ initial goal of providing the absolute best service online won it loyal employees, starry-eyed customers and even a $928 million buyout from Amazon.

2. Define your industry norms. From the 9-to-5 insurance culture to the big oil and gas culture in Houston, every community has its own nuanced behavior set. Naming your industry’s norms will help you consciously build your own culture in alignment—or not—with the dominant culture. If you bend the rules, you do so intentionally, instead of by accident or in an unmediated way. The Pacific Northwest’s Umpqua Bank, for example, successfully brings coffee shop culture into consumer banking, and that is completely by design.

3. Stay flexible. As you grow, team managers will create their own micro-cultures. Knowing what you’ll tolerate, and being open to change, will help you better steer the company through rapid growth. Chipotle, for example, changed its entire management structure after founder Steve Ells interviewed an unusually successful restaurant employee. The chain remains a smashing success in part due to this adaptation, which dictates that most promotions come from within.

4. Make sure that your hiring policy deliberately includes people of all ages and backgrounds. Studies have proven time-and-again that diversity is more important than ability when it comes to teamwork. It’s no coincidence that some of the biggest, most successful companies in America are also the most diverse. Finding smart people and skills from every generation, gender and background will open your team to its highest potential.

The risk of ignorance

Without set values, culture still blossoms, but it is more like a mold that leaders invariably uncover when the stakes are high. Ignoring your values sets your company up for churn, confused teams and chaotic growth. Fomenting a truly passionate culture—the traditional Silicon Valley kind where employees will happily work in a garage—means paying close attention to what makes your company tick.

The next time you’re tempted to buy a chiropractic massager for your communal workspace, remember this: Culture derives from values, not material objects. If the purchase doesn’t build on your values backbone, it’s just not worth it.

Kashif Aftab is CEO and founder of SkillGigs.