The word ‘startup’ evokes the image of a fast-paced, hyper-energetic, yet free-flowing working environment with minimal restrictions and ample perks. Startups take pride in being in constant hustle mode—the focus is always on getting things done, and since most tech startups are characterised by speed, the goal is to do it as fast as possible.
But perks and pace only don’t make a culture and just by themselves, neither do values, says Mainak Maheshwari, director, talent advisory at PeopleAsset—a boutique executive search & talent advisory firm.
“Most startup founders are heavily influenced by successful tech companies like Google, Meta, and Netflix, and wish the culture of these companies to be reflected in their own startups. The result? A mish-mash of borrowed values that are often confused with the culture,” he adds.
How can founders then foster a strong and sustainable culture that works for their startup? In an interaction with People Matters, Maheshwari dwells upon why culture is so important and how to build a strong and sustainable culture in an organisation.
What is culture?
Culture is a nebulous concept and is often an undefined aspect of an organisation. Although extensive academic literature exists relating to the topic of organisational culture, there is no generally accepted definition of culture.
Like each human being has a unique DNA, each organisation too will have its own cultural DNA, which will be based on multiple factors including but not limited to the business, the business model, the business/economic environment, cultural values of the location, and the value system of the leadership team.
For our purpose, we can define it as a collection of values, expected behaviours, and practices that guide the actions of each individual in the organisation. We can visualise it as railway tracks that provide for the smooth movement of the train.
Why is it important?
The railway tracks not only help in the seamless movement of trains but also keep the rack aligned, ensuring the whole rack reaches its destination. In many ways, an organisation’s culture does the same – keeping everyone aligned, and together, and making the entire journey smooth. From an employee’s perspective, it always helps to define what to expect in an organisation. And when both the organisation and the employees move in sync, business outcomes are positively impacted.
77% of workers consider a company’s culture before applying and one of the main reasons that almost two-thirds (65%) of employees stay in their job (Glassdoor). Thus, making it the most important thing that an organisation needs to build and sustain – other than the products/services.
Steps to create and sustain a strong culture
Organisations should start defining and building it at their nascent stages. The foundational years are the most critical in all aspects. A common mistake companies tend to make is to delay defining their culture till they are of a certain size. Unfortunately, this means that by the time a company grows in strength and scale, an unarticulated and undesirable culture might have already set in, making it difficult for the organisation to achieve its goals.
Think, define, build
Having said the above, founders must understand that culture is not built in a day. While the idea is to implement it from day 1, it must be well thought out. They should start by articulating their style of working & the values that drive them. This will help them understand if their co-founders’ working styles complement their own, and what should be the building blocks of their culture and values – the intersection of the individual way of working and value system.
Leading by example
The culture and values of a startup should be an authentic reflection of the personal values, behaviours, and working styles of all founders. It will ensure that each founding team member is satisfied with and relates to the culture, and is able to demonstrate it. As a result, employees witness the leadership bringing their company’s culture to life, every day, and they are more inclined to do the same.
Align all processes
Once articulated, the culture as well as the values must be reflected in every process and decision-making. From performance-focused processes like rewards and recognition or career progression to hiring evaluation, every action in the startup must bring the culture of the startup to life. This will ensure each individual is always acting in alignment with the ethics, values, and ‘persona’ of the company.
Keep talking about it
Communication is the key to helping culture percolate to each member and even prospective members. The leadership needs to play a pivotal role here by communicating it at every given opportunity, starting from day 1 of new hires. Existing employees can also play a key role in championing the cause and communicating the culture of the startup.
Keep revisiting regularly
Given that culture is fluid and impacted by multiple factors, we need to acknowledge that it will keep evolving during the journey of the organisation. Therefore, it becomes very important to keep revisiting it at regular intervals – to ensure that it is in alignment with the organisational goals – and make changes if required.
Culture is a living, breathing thing demonstrated in how everyone in an organisation works, behaves and makes decisions. It is important that the right foundation is laid from the very beginning, and that everyone on the founding team is aligned with it.