Company Culture Is Really Important, But The Way We Talk About It Is Wrong
What Makes A Culture “Bad” Isn’t Just That You Don’t Like It
I won’t invest in a startup that doesn’t care about its culture. Because a culture is going to form regardless so you might as well be deliberate about it. And it’s with your first hires that your intended culture will be solidified, evolved, mutated, or challenged. So be thoughtful about the characteristics you seek out; the motivations of those individuals; the processes and practices you put into place at the startup; and the behaviors and outcomes you reward. But in talking about culture with founders, I’m very deliberate when I characterize what I believe is a “good” culture vs a “bad” one. And I think we as an industry are very sloppy when we say “oh, Company X has a bad culture” because more often we really mean it’s just one that doesn’t appeal to us and isn’t objectively bad.
“Good” cultures are clear, consistent, scalable, actionable, well-matched to the company’s business model, and legal. By this definition, there are lots of “good” cultures that aren’t attractive to me as a team member. Amazon, from the outside, is a company culture that has always been extremely intriguing to me but where I’ve never felt a gravitational pull. Coinbase, which has been quite aggressive in defining what’s expected of you, isn’t my cup of tea, but I can still appreciate the clarity they are providing for potential employees. Similarly, the ‘holacracy’ style that has been explored by some startups sounds like a nightmare. But that mere personal attraction or repulsion doesn’t make them good or bad.
Some of the most controversial cultures in our industry are kneejerk labeled bad, in my estimation because they aren’t broadly appealing (on the surface) to a majority of tech workers. But so long as they meet the criteria in the paragraph above I’d call them polarizing, not bad.
Bad should be reserved for:
- Inconsistency in how values are implemented into management practices, hiring strategies, reward and recognition
- Lack of self-awareness, which prevents potential employees from understanding what that company values, and prevents current team members from improving or codifying…