How do you develop a strong company culture within a small team (~10 people or less) without any dedicated HR support? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Imagine you start a company with two other co-founders. One of you is the CEO, one is the CTO, and one focuses on customer acquisition. You hire a few engineers, a designer, and an office manager. You lease an office, crank out product, and start signing up customers.
After six months, business is picking up nicely, so you open a position to run your customer support group. You find a strong candidate who seems perfect for the role. She comes into your office for a day of interviews and joins the team for lunch. Later on, she goes out for drinks with some of the team and fires off questions about the company to them over beers.
When she gets home, her roommate asks her impressions of the company. She pauses and thinks about what she learned during the day. She considers:
What motivates the team? Did the team choose to work at this company because they believe in the team and mission, or just because they needed a job? Do they arrive in the morning energized to tackle whatever comes up, or do they stare at the clock waiting to go home? Is the team motivated more by fear of failure or by the chance to do something great?
What are people's work habits? Do people arrive early in the office and leave by dinner, or do they work late into the night and then not roll back in until lunch the next day? Do people work from home regularly? Do people respond to emails and Slack messages late at night and on the weekends, or do they sign off and go dark when the workday ends?
Is the team diverse? Is the team a mix of immigrants and natives? Does it have a mix of experience levels, or is everyone straight out of school? Does it have racial and gender diversity? Did most of the team know each other before joining the company, or were they recruited from a variety of backgrounds and networks?
Does the team socialize? At the end of the workday, do people hang out together, or do they go home to other friends and family? Are their social lives wrapped up in the company, or is the company just one of several social circles for them? Do they actually like each other, or are they merely cordial?
Where do the ideas come from? Do the founders generate the ideas and then expect the team to go and execute them? Or is every team member expected to contribute their own ideas? Are people hired based on their ability to generate and advocate their ideas, or just on their ability to crank out work that someone else defines?
How does the team collaborate? Do people schedule meetings to hash things out in person, or do they toss ideas around virtually over email and Slack? Do people share what they are working on with other groups and solicit feedback, or do they hold their work close to the vest, avoiding input since it creates more work? Are major decisions made only when there is strong consensus, or does a senior person simply decide the best thing to do then expect the team to follow?
Do people seek or avoid conflict? When there is a tough decision to be made, do people get together and hammer it out? When a difficult conversation is needed, do people have it or avoid it? Do people complain about other teams behind their backs, or do they seek them out and resolve differences?
Does the team promote from within? Are team members being trained on the business so that as it grows they can grow with it, taking on roles with more responsibility? Or does the company expect to hire new managers from the outside once more "adult supervision" is required?
How structured is the company? Does the company have a clear set of goals and objectives the team is working towards? Is it clear who is responsible for which work? When changes to the plan happen, are they carefully considered and communicated, or are they made on a whim? Does the company make fast decisions, or does it delay and spent time considering options and building consensus?
Who is rewarded? Are promotions and kudos given to the people who jump in and perform heroics when there is a crisis, or to the steady and reliable performers? Do the folks working in customer-facing roles get most of the kudos, or the ones behind the scenes making the trains run on time? Is challenging the status quo a fast track to more responsibility, or a good way to get smacked down and silenced.
As your recruit thinks about all of these factors, she is considering your company's values, norms, and expectations. She is thinking about how the company gets work done, who makes the decisions, and how people are rewarded.
What she is considering is, of course, your culture.
And you have one, whether you know it or not, All companies do. This leads to a few implications to culture and how it is shaped:
Culture is largely defined by the people. Most of a company's culture is simply an outgrowth of the people who work there. A company with mostly introverted people probably will have a quiet and considered culture. A company with a large sales team will probably have a more customer-centric and more extroverted culture. A company full of insecure or distrustful people will have a political or even toxic culture. A company with people who hate conflict will probably be indecisive and passive aggressive. A company with experienced people will draw more on best practices and previous experiences instead of rethinking things from first principles.
Culture is set by the leaders. The leaders design the org chart and put together the team. They decide who to reward and promote. They either welcome feedback and challenges or are threatened by them. Their behavior sets an example to the rest of the team, and the rest of the team models it. This is why cultures at small companies often simply reflect the personality of the founders.
Culture is set early and is hard to change. When your team arrives to work on Monday, they are generally going to behave the same way they did on Friday -- it takes a deliberate act to change people's habits. When your team hires new people, they will usually hire people who fit into the culture. And if your team is homogenous, it will have more trouble adding diversity later.
Culture is not HR. A great HR leader can help the company's leaders think about the culture they want, find ways to move the culture in the right direction, and monitor progress, but the culture of a company is set early and is set by the leaders. Most small companies don't have HR anyway.
Culture is not foosball and free beer. A great office environment can help attract and reward the people you want to join, but the culture is set by how the company does its work.
So what can a founding team do to make sure their startup has a great culture?
Do some soul searching. The culture will reflect the founders' personalities, so the founding team needs to think through how they can be careful to expose their attributes they want people to emulate and keep the ones they don't under control. They need to discuss with each other the culture they want to build and make sure they are in agreement before starting the company. They need to talk about adding more co-founders or early employees to counter-balance their own personalities.
Start early. Culture starts to develop the day the team starts working together. It's not something that can be added in later. The team needs to think about it from day one, monitor it carefully, and build the culture deliberately. "We'll fix it later once we are up and running" does not work.
Hire carefully. The biggest lever a company has to move its culture is who they hire. Startups should interview for cultural fit just as much as they interview for skill. They should check references carefully and ask those references questions about the candidate's character and work style. The founders should reach out to a variety of networks to get more diversity of thought and background vs. simply hiring people they happen to already know. And although human nature is to hire people like ourselves, the right answer is often to seek out those who come from different backgrounds and will challenge the culture to grow and expand.
Lead by example. Founders are under a microscope. Very small behaviors, like what they choose to talk about, who they reward, and how they respond to feedback and criticism spread quickly and set the culture.
Track your "actual" culture and your "aspirational" culture. Too many teams have an offsite, write down some cultural values, laminate it on a poster, then tell their team, "this is our culture." Teams roll their eyes since the reality on the ground is nothing like these values. Founders should instead be clear about the gap between today's culture and the culture the company aspires to, then be clear how they will close the gap.
Manage it. Recognizing and rewarding people should be partially based on each team member's contribution to the culture. During 1-1's, managers should ask questions about how the team is working together and building values the team wants to see. When gaps appear, managers need to work on solving them vs. hoping they resolve themselves somehow. In extreme cases they may even need to fire people who do something radically counter to the culture, especially disrespecting a co-worker or customer.
Question it. As companies change, cultures need to change. What worked before may not work in the future, so the team needs to keep asking both if the current culture is working but also how it needs to change as the company grows.
Most of all, culture is a living and breathing thing - it changes every day. A team can never completely control it, but they can be deliberate about the culture they want to build, understand the culture they have, and always strive to improve it, even when that means difficult or uncomfortable decisions.
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