November 18, 2015

Musings on (changing) corporate cultures

I think that for the first time ever I am spending a relatively significant amount of time thinking about corporate culture. I am pretty sure that the main reason why this is happening is due to the fact that, after 10+ years working in "traditional" companies, a few months ago I started to experience what working in a startup environment means. It was a much sought after move but, leaving other considerations aside, I can acknowledge that the cultural change has been very significant.

When you join an established company with a long history and solid values behind it, you know (or think you know) the kind of game you are getting into. You may agree or disagree with all or some of those values but at the end of the day, it's typically been about getting the job that you want (or that you thought that you wanted). In addition, you realize over time - in particular if you look back at those jobs early in your career - how those values and cultures have shaped your own work ethos. And you realize that even more as you move into a brand new space that has little to do with what you were used to (and which in some instances you don't buy into in full).

I have attended the European E-Commerce Conference taking place in the city of Bilbao, Spain, which focuses on different aspects of the startup and digital ecosystems. Interestingly, I have ended up attending - driven more or less by my subconscious, I'd say - a couple of sessions focused on corporate culture and organization. I just wanted to share some thoughts that have caught my eye:

  1. Design for uncertainty. The days where an organization was designed to fit and thrive in a peaceful, stable, quiet ecosystem are gone. Change is all over the place and it is here to stay. Companies need to be built to adapt to permanent change, to uncertainty. It is indeed a dramatic shift.
  2. Culture mirrors founders. Several speakers in a panel agreed that in most cases a company's culture is (and should be) the result of its founders' values. But this is no guarantee of success as some founders may be willing to create and maintain a culture that is completely the opposite of that of the kind of talent they are willing to attract to build the company they want. 
  3. In absence of a culture, build one. Sometimes there is no corporate culture as such in place and, in that case, it is central to build one. This is a process that needs to be implemented top-down with the CEO and management fully onboard. But a culture cannot be created overnight, it takes time and there are multiple levers to be used (e.g. recruiting, technology, practices)  
  4. Bureaucracy vs. non-bureaucracy. People hate the idea of corporate bureaucracy. I dislike it too and it has traditionally driven me a bit crazy to "waste" my time in it. Ask anyone and they will assure that they would do anything to get rid of bureaucracy at the workplace. But as bad as it sounds, it is also true - in particular considering how quickly technology, work trends, markets, etc., are changing - that it may also be a bit of the glue that keeps things together.
  5. Hiring vs. inspiring: Steve Cadigan pointed out during a round table that, increasingly, people do not want to be hired but be inspired. I can't think of a more powerful statement aiming at the very core of any given company's culture. You need to make your company appealing so you are able to both retain your employees and be able to attract valuable talent - this is the most powerful marketing tool within your reach.
  6. Integrating the new stuff. There is technology out there that can help any company achieve a more cohesive culture. For instance, Slack was mentioned several times as a great way to foster communication, sharing and transparency. At the same time, it is necessary to integrate traditional ways of working (ie. 9-to-5) with increasingly popular trends such as remote work and freelancing. 
At one of the sessions reference was made to the "Netflix company culture deck". As most of the audience, I had no idea about what that was (all the speakers in the panel knew about it and now I understand why!). A simple google search has led me to it. It is from 2009 but it's great and still fully applicable today. It was once referred to as "Silicon's Valley most important document ever". It is a long one but I strongly recommend you to have a look.

This will do for now, yet I think I am going to continue thinking about all this stuff as I get used to the new variables in this game I am playing.