Why organizational culture matters the most during growth years

The year is coming to a close and what a year it has been! Everyone thought 2020 was our mountain, but it was nothing compared to the year that followed. The second wave of Covid swept everything in its wake, and both personal and professional lives were affected. While I was down with Covid and confined to a hospital room, it was great to see my team extending support to each other, our clients and anyone else who needed it in those difficult times. They truly put people over everything else. So when the time came to put pen to paper, I thought I should write about culture.

I have been an engineer, an engineering manager, a product manager, a chief technical officer (CTO), Head of Engineering & Product, a product consultant, and an engineering consultant. I have built products from the ground up, led engineering teams, hired and fired people and have spent a considerable time in sales as well. As you can probably guess, the only reason I have been able to do these many things is because I was a founder and I have mostly worked with startups.

While there have been many lessons in my journey, the ones I remember the most are the failures. Yes, I’ve had my fair share of success, made some great acquaintances, and collected fabulous stories along the way, but if there is one big takeaway from all of that, it is that “experience is nothing but an elegant ten-letter-word for what not to do“. And the most important lesson I have learnt is that culture is probably the most important factor in deciding whether an organization will see success or not—not merely a financial success but a holistic one.

Don’t say we are small for thinking about culture

I have seen many startups neglect culture and avoid building a set of values for the company in lieu of other priorities. I am guilty of this as well. I have heard, more often than not, VCs, founders, industry experts, mentors, angels and employees talk about the three pillars or fundamental aspects that startups, in particular, early stage startups, need to get right. They are: Market, Product and Team.

A vector illustration on collaboration of market, product and team

But the chances of success for an early stage startup increases manifold if we have a proper mix of the above three parameters along with culture. We should not leave the creation of goals, values, attitudes and practices that make up the organization at the bottom of our to-do list.

A vector illustration on parameters along with culture

While people throw the word around in innumerable company meetings, founder speeches, VC talks and so on, seldom is serious effort put into building it.

I am not recommending having a dedicated team working on this full-time but it is food for thought. I am not recommending organizing team events on a grand scale to strengthen and emphasize the importance of culture but to let everyone learn core values of the organization that you follow unequivocally.

Read this wonderful post by Pavel Malos here. It talks about the categories of virtuous principles that can help build the essential framework of workspace culture. 

Culture makes up the fabric of the organization and weaves ethics and values into employee relationships in the day-to-day operations in the organization. In many senses, culture is like the air we breathe—something that is invisible but absolutely vital.

Here are some other things to note about culture:

  • Do not expect culture to be set beforehand. It is something you have to work towards.
  • Do not expect it to be bottom-up. Culture always trickles down from the top. This means that the founders have to get this right and set the tone for the company.
  • Do not expect what you want to be the defining culture. Remember, nothing is set in stone. As the team grows, new folks will bring new ideas to the table and you should always be keen to grow with them. Be cognizant of the fact that the phrase ‘one bad apple spoils the whole bunch’ holds true here. Keep an eye out for the red flags and catch them early. Remember, this is a collective responsibility.
  • Do not sacrifice the core values of the organization for anything. Not for that important deal, not for that first investment! It is also important that the core values are realistic. I have begun practicing following eight principles which I never negotiate with:

“Be respectful of the work you do”.

Be respectful to the people around you.

Do not lie, cheat or steal.

Be empathetic to your customers as well as employees ( many startups do not care about the latter).

Do not blame people for failures and while you honor individual excellence, celebrate success together. Take collective responsibility, fix what is broken and learn from it so that it does not happen again.Trust each other. You need to trust the people you hire for which you hired them. There will be some who may not perform but try to understand why. Give them a chance. Give them a second chance. And if nothing is working out, help them transition)

Be open, honest and  as transparent as possible.

Be open to feedback; it is not personal. At the same time, be sure to give feedback but in a respectful manner.”

Culture is not free food, on-site laundry and foosball tables. Culture is the organization respecting its employees enough to recognize they have a life outside of work and help them enjoy it. Culture is the employees respecting the work enough to let go of a personal event to get that critical release or bug fix on time. Culture is the employees sticking up for you in tough times. Culture is nothing but the organization personified!

To end this sermon—do not overthink it. Yes, this goes against whatever I have been saying till now but seriously, do not overthink it. Workspaces with great culture aren’t  built overnight. Just stay the course and things will fall into place. Locus is one of those rare places which gives culture its due importance. We are building the world’s best dispatch management platform and are always hiring. Come, join us.