Last night I went to a “symposium on culture” (the business kind).
It was a “good room”; two dozen CEOs of Seattle startups – lots of talent, lots of experience, and lots of good wine. The stage was set for wisdom to flow.
We enjoyed a handful of very good presentations and war stories about company culture. That said, what really struck me was that almost all the comments where about the tactics of culture not the core source of it. Tactics are interesting, but very quickly tend to start sounding like “bread, circuses, and group hugs”.
Trouble is, I just don’t think culture can be reduced to a cafeteria plan of “things management can do”. Don’t get me wrong, some great tactics were shared like free lift tickets, free meat, rights of initiation, rights of intensification, etc.
I just don’t think that stuff matters if you don’t have trust. If people don’t trust each other you’re just bribing them to keep coming back to work. Culture is like mood; it’s temporary and changes easily and it’s just a reflection of the underlying relationships.
It’s easy to see that morale events and company rituals have a pretty clear line of reasoning back to trust building. But that’s really small change compared to the opportunities with daily work. Every project (the stuff that actually pays the bills) has strings of trust connecting all the moving parts; it’s the projects where the real culture building takes place.
By the time my wine class was empty, I decided that CEOs only need to commit themselves to two simple ideas if they want to have a great culture and everything else will become a detail the team will handle:
- Fully commit yourself to building a trust-based organization – set a high standard for the level of trust that your team has with you, each other, and maybe (call me crazy) with your customers. Extend trust until it hurts.
- Trust starts at the top (a.k.a. It’s about you stupid) – The CEO sets the standards through routine actions. You want a culture of accountability? Then the CEO should be transparent about his/her work, responsibilities, and personal performance. You want your team to care about the business more? Then the business better care about them more. You want your customers to trust you, then you better never do wrong by them.
Maybe it’s just that simple.