Culture begets success. Or does it?

By Vinod Muthukrishnan|10th Dec 2016
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When talking startups, culture is perhaps the most discussed subtopic. And that’s precisely is the problem — culture is something that’s often spoken about, but not understood as much.

There’s a proclivity to associate culture with office perks, Beer Fridays, workplace movie marathons, and whatnot. As tempting as that might be, culture is anything but that!

office_culture
Image Credit: YourStory

To set things straight and break the ice, culture is, simply put, the foundation upon which the success of a company is built, which means that the perks and everything else that employees enjoy and cherish, are the result OF great culture, and do not result IN the creation of great culture.

So what make this great culture happen in the first place? How can startups let a healthy and successful culture breed and proliferate throughout the organisation?

It all starts with curiosity — something attitudinal, but which reflects largely on culture. Curious people discover new things, question status quo, invent, or at the very least, innovate. More importantly, curious people tend to push their boundaries, as well as those of their teammates, a little further.

Another prerequisite is to have team players. Clichéd, sure. Compulsory? Absolutely! It’s totally permissible to compromise a bit on core work skills if employees make up for it by being exquisite team players, the reason being that brilliant narcissists, or solo players, can have the most detrimental effect on your company, and in your growing phase, that could be the end of days for you.

The next thing to look out for is whether your employees are fundamentally good human beings. How is this related to building great culture? As hard as it is to admit, the concept of “I can succeed without you failing” is hard to grasp for a lot of people. Employees who feed off others’ failings are like slowly multiplying cancer cells. Not only do they spread negativity but bring down the overall performance of the company. On the other hand, fundamentally good and humble employees accept and realise that the only win in the organisation is if the organisation wins as a whole.

Next on the list is the approach taken to set up a hierarchy in your startup. A word of advice here: an organisation that believes in a flat hierarchy is any day better and more flexible and rewarding than the conventional top-down model, wherein the two-way flow of ideas is deeply restricted. Undoing this system is very tough. On a side note, a flat hierarchy doesn’t mean that you don’t have a boss or nobody is making more money than you. It indicates the ease of discussing ideas and opinions, even if they are contradictory, without the fear of retribution. As an example, even a fresher can stand up to the CEO and challenge status quo knowing that it will not be taken as a personal offence.

To put things into perspective, here are six crucial pillars that I believe are necessary constituents of a successful culture.

Freedom:

  1. Freedom, in this regard, means the free will to exercise opinions, to experiment, and not be obstructed by conventional wisdom. Freedom as a cultural attribute gives employees the space to do what they believe is right for the company.

Ownership:

  1. Freedom can be exercised in the right way only with ownership, because freedom without ownership is counterproductive. Ownership, therefore, is the most basic cultural attribute. Only those employees who behave like owners are outcome-driven, with a clear sight on the end goal. And in an ownership-driven work environment, freedom is very important; simple fact, you can’t have owners and not give them freedom. Ownership and freedom are therefore, in a way, two halves of the same cultural attribute.

Smart work:

  1. Smart work is about focusing on the outcome, and not on the quantum of work your employees put in. To be able to work smart, your employees need to be naturally curious, look ahead of time, and know what the end state/goal looks like. Those who look too tactically and obsess over each sub-task will not achieve the larger, company-wide result. At times, however, smart work and hard work are the same, as you need to put in a massive quantity of work to get the desired quality.

Passion:

  1. If passion is a drug, your startup should be OD’ing on it all the time! If there’s something you aren’t passionate about, it’s really hard to come to work, feel motivated, and full of energy. So, passion is almost an underlying requirement to form great culture as people driven by passion are usually able to do well even in new domains and uncharted territories.

Learning:

  1. Learning is rooted in curiosity. People need to want to become better. The simple fact is the skills that are relevant today will be irrelevant tomorrow. For example, the mode of content consumption, the various sales strategies, or management philosophies could change and evolve over time. So if your employees are going to stagnate, your company and its culture will stagnate as a consequence. People who are genuinely curious and want to become better at work have a strong spirit of learning, and it is upto the higher management to facilitate this.

Impact:

  1. Let’s use a bit of physics here. When moving an object from point A to point B, you can put tremendous amount of hard work, make a lot of movement, cover large distances, and still end up with a net displacement of ZERO, right? The point is, if you direction is flawed you can’t create impact, no matter how much you work. And without any impact, organisations can’t deliver value for clients, which makes them pretty much redundant. Impact is, in fact, the amalgamation of the other five cultural pillars: PASSIONATE people who take true OWNERSHIP in the company, who exercise the FREEDOM that is given to them to WORK SMART, LEARN, evolve and become better, cause IMPACT.

I had the pleasure of interacting with Dheeraj Pandey, the founder of Nutanix recently, and what he said about culture was this:

Culture does not beget success. Success begets culture.”

While it seems slightly counter-intuitive, it can’t be more accurate. great culture in an organisation that is stagnant or underperforming will easily crumble. Only success allows for positive reinforcement of good culture, which then also prepares you to face the tough times as well!

What makes your company culture stand apart? Do leave your thoughts in the comments below!

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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