We are frequently asked about our culture (and culture in general) by clients, partners and potential team members. Usually, I trip through a few sentences about values and good faith and the like, but I thought I'd actually pen a response and immortalize it here.
We aren't a large company. At 35 employees, we are still considered a very small business by federal standards. However, any time you have a group of more than 12 or so people working together, there is the pull of an incalculable force which takes hold of the company and inevitably decides its fate.
Like gravity or The Force, culture is a power that once directionally established is very difficult to change and it is even more difficult to fight its manifestations. The big misconception (I think) is that culture isn't just a marker of how much screwing around goes on in the office, or how much folks get away with in the eyes of management. Instead, culture is that underlying set of principles that have been established, adopted, and supported by staff members which drive behavior when management isn't around.
Let's face it, the level of honest reaction and natural behavior that occurs in front of management - in most reasonable situations - ceases to be entirely honest and natural once an organization grows beyond say, 10 people. It’s not people being dishonest, it’s just the reflection of the natural tendency that humans have to please. In most cases, people are going to be on their best behavior in front of their bosses. So it's only in the absence of management that the true culture of a company can be witnessed (and subsequently judged). How a collection of intelligent individuals act in a group dynamic when not directly breathing the hot-air spewed by management is the true litmus of a company's culture.
How do the people within organization behave or make decisions when on their own? Have they been empowered to always make the best decision for the client, user, project, or product? Are they comfortable taking calculated risks in the hopes of innovation, or are they afraid of failing and as such, more likely to stick to normal convention? Will they be respected for trying to innovate or penalized for failing?
It’s culture that determines how an employee is going to make these decisions when there isn’t a manager around to intervene. And, quite frankly, it’s exactly the employee’s tendencies towards these decisions that will determine how strong a business is at all levels - from the most junior intern to the senior leadership team.
So what do I think a healthy culture looks like? To me, the Mount Olympus of corporate culture is the following: brutal honestly, a collaborative pride of creation, and mutual good faith.
• Don't bullshit me and I won't bullshit you. If you screw up, I'm going to let you know and tell you what you need to improve on. But, when you hit a home run, I'll be the first one to hug you when you cross the plate.
• Pour your soul into what you create and the pride we collectively feel when it's finished will fuel our desire to out-do ourselves for the next project.
• Operate in good faith. Make good decisions and do the right thing. I'll trust you to be honest, give you loose hours, extra days off and a super relaxed atmosphere and in return, stay late when it's needed, finish what needs to get done without having to be asked and don't engage in fake doctor appointments and stupid juvenile nonsense like that.
There are no brain busters or secret formulas in those principals. It's basic good human stuff, and I believe it's the simplicity of those tenets that make them so powerful.
These are the actions that solidify the culture of an organization and drive them to do the right thing when forced to make an unguided decision. These are the actions that allow a team to operate sucessfully without constant managerial involvement. Most importantly, these are the actions that create an environment that engender staff to feel supported, involved, and empowered to do whatever they can to help the company succeed… and at the end of the day, that culture is the difference between a good company and a great one.