You can’t delegate culture.
Culture has to be explicit, intentional, and come from the top.
At many startups, the CEO is focused on numbers and growth over everything. Often times, that growth is at the expense of a good culture.
I believe that a good culture will create high growth through high employee satisfaction, low turnover, talent acquisition, and teamwork.
One of the first steps of any business is to decide on how the CEO and COO will work together, and what roles each will play. Too often, this important step is overlooked, which can lead to disastrous results.
Uber is a prime example. The main focus was growth, over everything. Only when the company was valued at $69 billion, did they 'stop' and shift focus from growth to culture. I wonder how different the results would be if Travis Kalanick focused most of his energy from the outset on the culture of the business.
At Hungry Harvest, culture isn't just a buzzword we throw around. It's an intangible asset of ours. I conduct check ins with every employee twice a month, where I don't just go over goals and metrics - but I ask specific questions to help guide them and the company, such as:
- Is there anything we're not talking about or focusing on that we should?
- Are you feeling overwhelmed, underwhelmed, or just challenged enough, and why?
- What are your biggest hurdles that I can help with?
- Do you have any feedback for me?
I'm definitely not the smartest one working for Hungry Harvest. The smart, driven employees have specific expertise in fields they've been studying for years. Why would I make decisions for them, when they have more knowledge on that specific topic? Overruling them and making decisions on every small detail would be a poor use of my time, and ego-driven.
The primary function of my job is to foster employee ownership over their roles & responsibilities. This empowers employees to make good decisions in the best interest of the company.
I have two main tips for creating a good culture:
1. It has to come from the top.
Of all of the recommendations in Eric Holder's 13-page report, the one that astonishes me most is the following line:
"The Board should continue Uber's efforts to bring in a Chief Operating Officer who will.... focus on day-to-day operations, culture, and institutions within Uber....Some of the skills and experiences the Board should look for in a COO include:....candidates with experience in improving institutional culture."
Culture cannot come from the COO. It has to come from the top. The CEO is not just the leader in the vision and the mission - s/he also sets the example for the employees. They'll follow her/his lead more so than any other employee - that's why it's so pertinent that culture is the primary focus of the CEO.
In our culture, we encourage employees to speak up about problems so we can solve them as a group. For example, two employees last year noticed logistics errors increasing. We got together as a team, and realized that logistics errors were high because we were onboarding many drivers at once to replace drivers that were leaving us. Drivers were leaving because they didn’t have enough work. We decided to expand the number of days we delivered on to use less drivers and reduce turnover. In 2 months, delivery errors decreased by 50%.
This is why culture is so important. When employees speak up, problems needing attention get solved, which result in better outcomes.
2. You have to focus on culture early, and keep the pedal on the gas.
Culture is the first project founders should work on, and it’s constantly a work in progress. I would be remiss to make the claim that 'Our culture is good, so I guess I don’t need to work on it anymore!' The culture should be the main focus of the CEO as a business scales and more employees are hired.
Startups will reach a point when their biggest challenge is no longer 'getting off the ground,' but attracting and retaining top talent. When this shift occurs, it's too late to start working on culture. It has to start from the founding of the company.
In addition to one-on-one check ins with every employee, there are other ways we maintain and build upon company culture. For example, we conduct Honesty Meetings every other week. It's an all-hands meeting where each team member, including me, takes turns receiving feedback from the rest of the team about what we can improve on and things we've done well. Some incredible changes have amounted from this meeting.
For example, I received feedback from several team members at the beginning of May that I need to have more conviction on the vision of where the company will be in 5 years, which will help decision making. In many other organizations — the CEOs might fire those employees for such ‘disrespect’. I took this feedback to heart and I’m now developing a more detailed 5-year plan.
Here are some books you can read on culture that have significantly impacted my management style: