First, a disclaimer: I am not an expert at building company cultures. I have, however, experimented a lot over the span of a decade. Here are some things that have worked for us, others that haven’t, as well as other promising initiatives.
The Right Team is Key
Finding the people that match your mission and values is the centerpiece of a great work culture. Every company stands for different things, and before anything, you need to know who you are. Unfortunately, if you are starting, you may not be entirely sure yet. You may have some idea, but you may not be clear of what it will look like in real life. You may have also inherited someone else’s culture, which may not match your vision of what you want to see in your company.
Whatever the case may be, try to develop as clear an idea as possible. Then, hire people whom you think will match that culture. Sometimes you know a person is a perfect match when you see him or her, even if you cannot say explicitly why.
Ultimately, the type of person you hire will probably share some key characteristics that make them a great match with the culture that you have established. However, their profiles will likely differ. There is incredible richness in diversity, and the people who will work well in your culture can be completely different from one another.
It is risky to hire someone that does not align well. Yet, hiring processes are difficult, and cultural fits, many times, are not completely clear until the person has tried working in your company. Once the person is inside the company, it’s important to evaluate whether the person is a match or not.
The more people you can hire that embrace your culture, the better. This culture will not remain static, of course, and the right team will be key in ensuring it evolves in the direction you envision together. When the right people are on board, everything magically coalesces. Even if you haven’t figured everything out in your company, it will be much easier to solve problems with people who care about the company and the work as much as you do. Collaborating becomes a joy, and together you can grow and evolve.
Building Cultures is Natural
As Yuval Harari explained in Sapiens, creating stories or concepts, such as companies and countries, was how we were able to collaborate and become as successful as we have as a species. A company at its most basic level is, after all, a group of people that come together to work on the same mission. The question then becomes how to unite the team. The way we do it is through the cultures we create. Arguably, every company has a culture, whether it has emerged organically, or it has been designed in any way.
A company is a complex system. There is not necessarily a causality between one variable and the following one, but instead, if there is an action in the system, others may respond in unpredictable ways. Furthermore, the action of one affects the action of the next person which may affect the original person and three others. On a larger scale, think of an economy, which moves based on the actions of countless actors and is impossible to predict or control. It can mostly be nudged, as in the case of a central bank that sets interest rates or when a government introduces new legislation to incentivize investment.
Therefore, if every company naturally develops a culture, the best we can do as leaders is to try to move it in the direction we envision. Because they are systems, we are not able to forcefully move the culture along the course we want. There are, however, concrete actions we can take, such as ensuring we have the best-matched team.
Also, depending on what you want, you can start experimenting. For example, at Celaque, I wanted to unite the company horizontally across departments. I also wanted greater transparency so that everybody would be able to make decisions with full access to the relevant information. We then implemented company-wide meetings, where we share everything that is happening in all areas of the company, including many of our most important metrics and indicators.
We also wanted to recognize the importance of the values we share as a company. With a secret ballot, we voted for the person that most embodies those characteristics. We had quite a few exponents, but in my opinion, we chose a great team player for that prize. We hope that having a clear, living model will further inspire the rest of the team to embrace those values.
We continue to experiment, although we cannot implement everything simultaneously. Therefore, we are moving forward with one idea at a time and evaluating the impact of each one, and whether it is working. Along the way, we have made mistakes, but we persist. And the beauty is that as we move forward, we are growing closer as a team, and we are evolving in the direction we seek.