It was a brisk, wintery day back in 2012, and I was sitting in a Manhattan conference room with a group of my colleagues. We spent the bulk of that morning scribbling, erasing, then re-scribbling adjectives on a whiteboard. We ended up with 10 that, we believed, defined the culture we wanted for Sprinklr.
Years later, I can still remember frost clinging to the windows. But for the life of me, I can't recall a single word we wrote down.
Our exercise didn't work out exactly the way we wanted it to, but it was an important part of our journey to discovering and solidifying our real company culture.
As an entrepreneur, you'll almost certainly go through this same experience (whiteboard and all) - at least if you want to be successful.
When you do, here's some advice that might help.
1. Think, but don't obsess, about your culture early on.
It's good to have a sense of company culture when you first start out. But don't obsess about it.
We had an idea of what we wanted our culture to be on day one. But we kept it on the backburner as we honed in on the problem we were solving, and how to create real value for our customers. If you don't do that first, nothing else matters.
The moment you recognize that you need to focus on culture - it'll hit you like icy water.
For me, it happened around employee #50. I walked around the office one day and saw people I didn't interact with very often. We were still a small company at that point - all sitting on a crowded floor in a cramped office - but I felt disconnected somehow.
It seemed as though every employee held a different compass and followed his or her own path, but these paths didn't always match up with one another. We weren't all guided by the same mission.
So off to the whiteboard my colleagues and I went.
2. Discover what your culture really is, then define it.
Our initial whiteboarding effort, as well meaning as it was, ultimately failed because it was too abstract. Everything made sense on paper, but none of it was grounded in the reality of who we actually were as people. Once we accepted that, we took a step back and really looked at the company.
This time, we used our employees as a foundation.
We looked at the strongest players - the ones driving change, the ones taking on more responsibility, the ones we were all most proud of - and studied their commonalities. I personally talked to each of them to discover their motivations.
That's when we discovered our true culture.
From there, codifying our shared principles came easily. We turned them into five simple phrases that became our official core values. To this day, they unite us around a common vision. They drive us to make the right decisions. And they guide us when the lights are off.
This might be the most important lesson you'll learn about culture: there's a culture that you want and then there's a culture that there is. You have to embrace and celebrate the latter.
Over time, you can try to introduce and seed new principles to augment your existing ones. And if you nurture them, they may very well grow. But that can only happen if you understand and respect the conditions of the soil you're tilling in.
3. Be very explicit in embracing and nurturing company culture.
We're very explicit about our culture.
Our core values are written on our walls. They're on our notebooks and hoodies. We do many of the same things other companies do to celebrate culture. But more importantly, we live by our culture.
We hire based on our values. We promote according to them - there's even an award based on them. And we fire against them.
We're proud of our feathers, and to those inside and outside the company, there's little question as to what those feathers look like.
You might have a different way of honoring your company culture. Maybe you celebrate employee achievements on a weekly basis. Or you have an environment that fosters relationship-building. Whatever it is, keep doing it. Once you've found the principles that guide your organization, you have to constantly reinforce them.
One last thought...
I'll never forget the first time I heard a client describe an employee using words almost identical to our core values. That's when I knew we got it right.
You may not get culture right the first time - we didn't either. Keep going. Because once you find the thing that really holds your company together, it's almost impossible to break it apart.