The Cult-Like Cultures of Amazing Start-ups
BY Steve Tobak
Indoctrination, vision, mission--you'll almost always find a little bit of cult-like mentality at the most successful start-ups.
If you ask 10 executives or business leaders what really motivates employees to do great things, you'll probably get 10 different answers.
Many will provide a generic response along the lines of employee engagement or emotional intelligence. Not that employees shouldn't be engaged or leaders shouldn't be self-aware, but let's face it, that's pretty baseline. It's not going to get your team fired up to go out and conquer the world.
Likewise, if you ask thousands of people what motivates them, you'll get some common responses. Many will say they want an environment where their work is appreciated, recognized, challenging--that sort of thing. But again, that's nothing to write home about.
If you want to really motivate your team, if you want them to jump out of bed in the morning excited to get to work and go to bed at night feeling like they've done something amazing, you're going to have to be a lot more creative.
The truth is, what motivates individuals is highly subjective and situational. There is no answer that will work across the board. It often comes down to the unique characteristics of an eccentric geek, some crazy idea, and a team that's made to believe it can accomplish great things.
So, instead of the usual boilerplate fluff, let me tell you how someone like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, or Steve Jobs somehow manages to build a cult-like culture of people that love their work and truly believe they can make a dent in the universe. And how you can do the same thing.
Be the courageous hero. Believe it or not, inside every one of us is a kid who once believed in superheroes and romantic tales. There's a part of each of us that wants to be led by a hero of sorts. If you truly believe in your own vision, then you owe it to your team to play that role. Just don't overdo it and go jumping off buildings or anything.
Give them a Holy Grail to search for. Perhaps the most important part of the equation is the cause itself, a product that solves some huge problem that nobody's been able to solve or enables people to do something really, really cool. Pretty much everyone wants to see loads of people using something they had a hand in. Besides, cults are never really about their leader but about the cause.
Hire those who want to take that journey with you. If you simply hire folks who can do a job, that's all you're going to get, even if they are really talented. What you want are people that fit a certain type that resonates with you and what you're trying to achieve. Granted, you're not looking for an army of clones; a little diversity is a good thing.
Show them the way. A group needs direction and discipline to fulfill its cause, strategy and planning to turn an idea into reality. You have to be able to fill the shoes of a good manager who can point people in the right direction and be there when they need guidance and encouragement. It's true that not every start-up founder makes the best CEO, but they're usually quite capable, at least in the early stages.
Draw them into your story. It's one thing to have a unique vision--it's another thing to be capable of connecting with folks in some emotional or intellectual way. That requires a certain leadership presence, a healthy ego, and perhaps a little bit of Kool-Aid. Your team needs to feel a sense of purpose, that they're an integral part of achieving some great mission. Perhaps indoctrination is too strong a word, but you know what I mean.
Make it up as you go. We hear the stories about Facebook, Google, and Apple over and over but the truth is that most start-ups don't score big on their first idea. Besides, even if you've got a great concept, your team's unique dynamic may evolve to a great extent on its own. So you've got to be open and adaptive. Pay attention, listen and learn, look for clues to the culture that makes the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts.
If you doubt that the culture of a start-up can be a lot like a cult on a mission, ask anyone who's been a part of one and they'll tell you. I've been there myself, more than once. There is indeed truth to the metaphor. They're not all like that, but some of the most storied and successful ones definitely are. I'd tell you which ones, but then I'd have to swear you to secrecy.