In one of the recent Mucker’s Growth Series Webinars, we proudly invited one of the previous MuckerLab Partners, Todd Emaus, a serial founder, author of the book Scale Without Losing Your Soul, and currently a partner at Evolution. The webinar delved into the crucial topic of company culture for early-stage startups. With a keen focus on actionable takeaways, Emaus highlighted pitfalls as well as provided insightful strategies. The recap of the webinar is listed below with the full webinar recording.



The First Mistake: Culture Reductionism

In the pursuit of fostering a robust organizational culture; leaders and founders often encounter a common pitfall: culture reductionism. This entails oversimplifying culture by confining it to tangible elements, such as perks and narratives, potentially diluting its essence. These surface-level components, while not inherently flawed, lack the depth required to truly differentiate a company in the competitive landscape. The risk lies in their ease of replication, transforming culture into a mere marketing tool. 

Two fundamental factors perpetuate this issue: 

  • The leader's culture-building dilemma, where competing priorities overshadow culture-building
  • The absence of a clear roadmap for impactful action.  


To address these challenges, the Culture Building Roadmap, detailed in Scale Without Losing Your Soul, emerges as a valuable resource. This structured model offers actionable guidance, bridging the gap between abstract cultural philosophies and tangible implementation. By embracing this framework, leaders can transform their organizations into proactive agents of culture, charting a course defined by deliberate action rather than passive contemplation.

The Second Mistake: Borrowed Culture

In the realm of culture building, the second common mistake is adopting a borrowed culture. In the early stages of building a company's culture, founders often resort to mimicking what other successful companies do. They collect bits and pieces from various sources, like blog posts and articles about company core values or culture decks, and attempt to piece together what sounds like a good culture for their own organization. However, this approach of borrowed culture is inherently flawed. It fails to resonate authentically with the company's identity and its unique DNA. For instance, attempting to transplant another company's culture, like Netflix's, into your own may lead to a misalignment that can be detrimental.

The antidote to this mistake is to embark on a journey of self-discovery, aiming to uncover your company's essence or soul. This entails acknowledging that your organization possesses a distinctive identity and way of doing business. To initiate this process, take on the role of an “anthropologist” within your own company. Observe and inquire about when your team performs at its best, who the standout individuals are, and the behaviors that define your unique working style. This phase often involves interviews, focus groups, and keen observations. 

Design your culture code, and articulate your culture

By collecting this raw material, patterns, and themes will start to emerge, providing insights into your organization's core values and identity. This newfound clarity serves as the foundation for designing a culture code or blueprint that encapsulates your company's essence. Regardless of the terminology you choose to adopt, the key is to create a single source of truth, a reference point that articulates your values and desired behaviors, facilitating consistency in cultural alignment. This foundational work can transform your company culture from borrowed to bespoke, aligning it authentically with your identity and guiding your team's actions toward shared goals.

The Third Mistake: Leaders Don’t Live It (aka Bullsh*t Culture)

The third common mistake in culture building is when leaders fail to live their stated culture, resulting in what can be termed as "bullsh*t culture." In this scenario, an organization has defined its values, crafted a culture code, and listed core principles, but the leaders do not genuinely embody these values in their actions. This disconnect between words and actions transforms the stated values into sources of skepticism among employees. They may perceive these values as mere rhetoric, leading to a lack of trust and belief in the organization's culture.

Prototype your culture code

To rectify this mistake, it is crucial to prototype your culture code within your leadership team before rolling it out company-wide. Start by identifying the behaviors that are particularly challenging or uncertain for your team to live by. Then, commit to practicing these behaviors for a specific duration, often two to four weeks. During this period, provide real-time feedback to each other to encourage alignment with the desired culture. This approach allows you to test and refine your culture code within the leadership team, reducing the risk of insincerity and ensuring that your organization's values are genuinely lived and not just empty words.

Regarding skepticism about corporate values and culture codes, it's worth noting that many employees seek deeper meaning and purpose in their work beyond just good pay and a pleasant environment. Organizations that successfully build cultures aligned with meaningful values tend to foster environments where employees find fulfillment and bring their best to their roles. While skepticism may arise when leaders don't authentically live the culture they promote, the key is to ensure that culture serves as a meaningful context for collaboration and growth rather than a mere control mechanism. When culture truly becomes the binding fabric of the organization, it can inspire employees to do their best work and engage in a more profound way.

The Fourth Mistake: Culture Relegated to the Background

Mistake number four in managing corporate culture is the tendency to let culture recede into the background over time. Often, companies establish their core values, Leaders initially exhibit behaviors in line with these values, but gradually, the culture becomes dormant. While values may be documented on internal platforms, they lack active implementation and ongoing discussions. This issue arises when culture is regarded as a one-time project. The solution lies in viewing culture as a continuous product, an idea promoted by Asana's founders. Treating culture as a product necessitates perpetual iteration, adopting a build, measure, and learn approach to ensure constant nurturing, rather than treating it as a static endpoint.

Treating your culture as your second product

To implement this strategy effectively, companies should integrate their values into various aspects of their operations, including hiring processes, performance evaluations, meetings, and communication channels like Slack. Employing pulse surveys and culture-oriented OKRs can help measure the effectiveness of cultural initiatives. Appointing a culture product manager is essential for accountability, supported by cross-functional teams where applicable. Even smaller companies should engage in conversations about their culture to identify areas of improvement. Experimentation is encouraged, where trial-and-error methods are embraced to enhance culture. An illustrative example involves using Slack's React Channeler tool to promote behaviors tied to core values.

For organizations with a well-defined culture code that may have become less prominent, the focus should shift to continuous iteration, possibly involving a culture reset during all-hands meetings. Founders are advised to let go of the expectation of having a perfectly established culture and instead embrace the concept of a learning organization, where culture is in constant evolution. Key next steps for most organizations include discovering their core essence, capturing the essential nature of their culture, and allowing themes to emerge. If a culture code doesn't align with actual behaviors, leadership teams should engage in prototyping. For cultures lacking vibrancy in day-to-day operations, adopting a product-oriented approach with ongoing iterations is essential for revitalization.

Next Action: 

If you haven’t defined the culture you are building: 

-- Discover your essence, and start capturing when we are at our best

If your culture code doesn’t feel fully aligned with your actual behaviors: 

-- Prototype: Practice and give feedback within your leadership team

If your culture isn’t alive in the day-to-day: 

-- Begin iterating on your second product. PM, X-Team, Experiments


Thanks to Todd Emaus for sharing this information.


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