Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Come to think of it, I don’t eat breakfast. I messed up with the title, damn it!

Seriously though, I have said this thing many times to different people that culture is everything. It wasn’t until very recently, when I started (be sure to check it out, yes shameless plug, I gotta start the SEO thing somewhere) that I started thinking more and more about what exactly is it about culture that supersedes any strategy that you might put in place.

I have had people tell me from both sides of the aisle, one vehemently believe culture is at the core of how you build and run a company and the other believes that culture isn’t everything.

I mean I agree some folks just want to come to work, do their job and go and live their life. They are a far cry away from all that raah raah BS. I respect and understand that prespective. And we have folks, who really appreciate a strong company culture, for them it is important to know they work in a place that closely aligns with the values they share. What I want to be able to accomplish with my rant today is show why culture indeed is important. I see companies making so many mistakes, mistakes that can be avoided, because trust once lost can never be earned back and the C level Exec teams, I believe need to do a better job in building a strong culture that has a lot of upside.

I’ve had the good fortune of managing people for good part of a decade now and based on my experience, for the most part we can all agree on the fact it is a million times better to work in a place where there is a strong culture and people actually give a crap about each other.

Studies have shown that culture leads to lower attrition, happier employees and of course, happier for the most part = better productivity.

Yes, I’ve been working in sales all my adult life now and there is that shark eat shark competition happening, testosterone and ego flying around. But frankly that stuff gets exhausting real quick. Yes you can be extremely motivated and ready to do just about everything to earn a nice pay cheque but is it really worth it though? Because ruthless competitiveness is just not scalable. Well, then you watch House of cards and your opinion changes real quick haha.

And while I understand both sides of the argument, let’s dive deeper in to why a strong culture is important and what can companies do that can actually help them build a strong culture?

And by culture I don’t mean the fact that you have a yearly retreat once a year and people meet up, or you do secret santa every year, yeah that shit don’t cut it. It’s not culture, it’s just a page taken from the handbook of “what other companies do, so we do it as well to have a semblance of company culture”.

As someone who as worked at multiple companies over the years, I can confidently say that a strong company culture is essential.

From my experience, a positive company culture means having a shared set of values, a sense of community and an open and transparent communication style. When folks feel like they are part of a team that truly cares about their well-being and growth, they are more likely to feel engaged, motivated and committed to their work.

On the flip side, even if you have a garbage and toxic company culture, people will still work for you, but they will never be as productive. Toxic culture breeds negativity, which in turn breeds low morale, high turnover rates and poor work quality. More importantly when people don’t feel valued, they are more likely to burn out and lose the passion they have for their work.

You are not only destroying your company’s bottomline but also negatively affecting people who are helping you grow the company. I mean what possible good could come out of this?

In today’s world, leaders who micromanage suffocate creativity; those who empower and trust inspire innovation. Micro managing is one of the worst traits of a toxic company culture. Yeah yeah I know, big talk coming from a guy who sells “productivity monitoring software” 😅, look i’m a big proponent of the white hat approach as oppose to just screenshoting the living hell out of people’s work. That is all I have to say about this. Swiftly moving on…

I think another thing which I have noticed is that a lot of leaders just suck at communication. Communicating change for instance, vision, what the company is going to do in the midst of a pandemic or a world event that affects everyone, etc.

One approach that I really admire and like was done by founders of Prezly. Jesse and Gijs. Now I worked for these guys for a bit over 3 years and I have never seen anyone come close to transparency as these guys did. They hosted a company QA session every quarter. Where everyone could ask just about anything and they will answer the questions on that call. The questions were not requested in advance, there were no taboo topics, just give it to em straight and boy were there questions that were tough at times, ha.

Gijs and Jesse did a great job dissecting everything and answering the Qs that everyone had. I don’t think anyone expected them to have the answers for everything. But the fact that they were open about everything and they provided a platform in which this could be a discussion gives them major props.

Because the go to strategy for most leaders is to just shove things under the rug and let them fester until people move on. This is a horrible strategy, actually it’s no strategy and really destroys the fabric of companies.

I know with time comes change and believe me when I say that change is important, but how you communicate the change is of more importance than the actual change in my opinion. People are afraid of the unknown so come out and get ahead of the stuff instead of letting the negative thoughts fester inside of the people’s head.

You can have the best strategy in the world, but if the people are not behind your shared mission, you will never win. It reminds me of a scene in a TV series I was watching, forgot the name of it, something about vikings. The scene I’m referring to is one of a battle with two sides, where one is extremely outnumbered, I think the ratio was something like 3:1.

What the side with the lower number have though was a strong sense of cause/purpose. They were avenging their village being burned down. While the other side, having a larger number of people did not have a just cause, or motivation to fight. The leaders certainly thought they did but the actual people, not so much.

Guess which side won?

Yup, you guessed it. The one avenging the burning of their village. While a very simplified example, we have seen time and time again that when people come together to go after a shared goal and if they are motivated enough, well they can achieve just about anything. Strong culture is just like that. It can make a group of people achieve greatness.

So why does company culture matter? It impacts just about everything from employee retention and recruitment to overall business success. When leaders/companies invest in the culture, it shows that they actually care about the people that work alongside them.

I do want to share some tips that are based on my experience and the people that I highly respect who have built great companies and have a very strong team culture. I will try and keep it actionable and less jargony.

Hiring the right people and firing toxic people

I think this is the most critical one if you ask me. I have seen companies that love touting the “no asshole rule” but when push comes to shove, they choose the brilliant jerk every time.

In my 11+ years of working I have not once seen an asshole getting fired. Companies need to do a better job and outlining what the company culture is, after all culture starts from top down. This is why it’s imperative to hire people that match your company culture and hire folks that don’t possess the traits that are not a good match for your company and the people working there.

Bad hires take the entire team down and makes everyone’s lives more difficult. Better to cut them off and offer a good severance package so that no one is harmed in the end.

Advice I give to managers who are overly compassionate: “Do this to protect the rest of the team”.

Don’t force people to quit their job to get a pay raise or other benefits

Just pay the people well. Please.

It costs 4x the money to hire someone new after a current employee leaves. The training, the strain on the team, etc are all costs on top of it all. Just do better and don’t be stingy when it comes to money.

If a good developer leaves because another company that is paying better or has better benefits, then you’ve unequivocally failed.

For the love of God, avoid echo chambers

I know it’s nice to hear everything you want to hear, that is what we have Twitter (whoops, X) and reddit for. Leaders in a company should listen to the employees when they struggle with something. Don’t push the “difficult chat”, have it. And have it sooner rather than later.

I know first hand that these talks are easy to manage when the teams are small, but once the company and teams grow leaders tend to surround themselves with other leaders and create their own echo chambers that ignore the people doing the actual work at the company.

Work/Life balance

Yes, yes I suck at it but that does not mean that the rest of my team has to suffer just because I do. Create processes in a way that don’t demand people to work weekends or after hours.

If you have an infrastructure that makes people get up at 1 AM to fix something, you are doing something really wrong as a company.

Value psychological safety

This is all about making sure that people do not fear blow back by being open and honest with their mistakes and opinion.

I’m sure my definition of psychological safety isn’t the same as everyone else’s though, but to me, it is all about fostering an inclusive environment where people don’t fear experimenting and providing value, while encouraged to speak up about concerns, ideas and their mistakes without fear of being judged or punished.

Do note that psychological safety doesn’t mean that one can say anything without backlash. Statements that impact others’ psychological safety. Statements that are bigoted, racist, sexist, etc are not protected under psychological safety. It is not a green card to be a dick.

I’m sure plenty more can be added here when it comes to creating the right company culture. I just wanted to share my thoughts on why a culture is important, having one has a lot of upside and not having a company culture that is strong can and does result in a negative experience for people working there and the company.

I’m also referring to the glassdoor reviews that the companies get. Those reviews don’t happen in a vacuum, your company culture is a leading cause of that.

I heard a quote somewhere that, “Bad customers drive away good customers.” This also applies to employees. Few people will be willing to stick around without accountability for others’ behaviour. After all, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior its leader is willing to tolerate.”

We as companies need to do better. The people alongside you deserve it.


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