Prior to 2000, company cultures weren’t explored and appreciated as a core asset. Sure, they existed, but their study and development was not considered important in meeting a company’s goals. The connection between culture and success wasn’t yet realized. 

Then in 2009, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings shared his company’s culture code in the form of a 100+ slide deck on Slideshare. Not many companies had one, and this look at what it covered was revolutionary.  It has since had nearly 16 million views. 

The advent of the culture deck revealed that culture was finally getting the attention it deserved. Companies were beginning to see that culture was a key, maybe the key, competitive and strategic advantage. Products and features can be copied, but like fingerprints or snowflakes, cultures are unique. Today companies from real estate to hospitals have statements to reflect their culture.

You can’t hire someone to create a culture for you. If you have more than five employees, it’s already there. You just have to discover and articulate it. You can’t set out to be what you’re not, or pretend to be what you’d like. What you can do is learn what your culture is now. If things appear that concern you, you can work to change them.  If you like what is there, you can keep nourishing it.

What exactly is company culture? 

HubSpot Founder and CTO Dharmesh Shah calls culture “a company’s operating system.” He’s spent hundreds of hours on HubSpot’s, which is in its 16th iteration. He views it as “…part manifesto, part employee handbook and part diary of dreams." Hastings says simply that culture is “how a firm operates.”

Both agree that company culture is a core asset:

  • It is a companies beliefs and values, articulated and lived.
  • It is a statement of what a company will always do, and never do.
  • It informs how a company functions and how a workplace feels.
  • It enables great teams by providing context about what success looks like.
  • It guides hiring decisions.

Culture never wears off or goes away. It’s there every day, and it has a huge impact on everything that matters to every business. Having a culture code let’s everyone in a company know the thinking on these three questions:

1. Why is our existence crucial?

2. What kind of company do we want to be?

3. How will we get there?

Simon Sinek, author of “Start with Why” reminds us:  “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” and that means not just customers, but employees.

The process of articulating your company culture encourages deep thinking about purpose, strategy and tactics. Culture aligns actions with promises. Despite many descriptions of a “fun” culture, this is not a cultural attribute. It could, however, be a brand trait, since a brand is a set of promises of what customers can expect when experiencing a company.

If fun was a brand trait, there would certainly have to be pillars of the culture designed to  deliver on this promise. That’s one of the key reasons for having a codified culture statement. If there isn’t a culture in place to support brand promises, trust is at risk. 

Team, or family?

There is a statement in the Netflix document has that generated a great deal of conversation. At a time when “we’re all one big happy family” was the default company description, saying “we’re a team, not a family” was a radical departure.

It makes sense when you think about it. Teams can be perpetual high performers.  Families are more complicated.  The conversation surrounding it was divided between appreciation for its honesty and agreement on one hand, and thinking it was cold and tended to view people as disposable on the other.

Nonetheless, HubSpot and Possible (a company bringing medical care to the world’s poor) both included it in their culture codes. Companies frequently quote a slide verbatim from another code, and frequently that code is Netflix.

The value of the team

The concept of teams has evolved. A team isn’t a set unit. It changes with a company’s needs. So, obviously flexibility and being able to get along with different people is a valuable trait. It shows up in some fashion in most culture descriptions. Netflix seeks teams of “stunning colleagues working on big challenges."

More specifically, they must be stunning in the nine categories that define the Netflix culture. Performance is judged by how well people execute according to the tenets laid out in the culture code. Mediocre teammates are demoralizing.  At many companies, adequate performers get a moderate raise. At Netflix, they get a generous severance package. 

How to enable stellar teams

Here are a few suggestions for high-performance teams from other culture decks:
  • teams are connected by shared purpose (the “why”), and enabled by technology
  • teams are most useful when devoted to strategy rather than tactics 
  • teams are motivated by context, not control, i.e. share the strategic metrics, assumptions, roles, stakes and decision-making process.
  • as long as superstars are supported by other stunning colleagues and big challenges, the rest takes care of itself.
  • hire for the traits necessary to function independently and on teams

You can see from these snippets from culture statements how they inform every aspect of your business. This isn’t soft touchy-feely stuff for posters. Commitment to defining and supporting your corporate culture is a strategic carefully thought-out long-term undertaking.

Learn more about how to build and scale winning company cultures.

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