In early February, Todd McKinnon asserted in a WSJ blog article that “long-term success is not predicated on creating a world-class company culture.” In this article he goes on to to describe attributes of culture like Yoga Wednesdays and executives droning on about corporate values, with the conclusion that “culture slows things down” to the detriment of early stage ventures.
Broadly speaking it would certainly be an interesting business school study to look at the link between culture and its impact on early stage ventures. But I surmise that even with irrefutable proof, the importance of culture would quickly shift to a quasi-religious battle between believers and nonbelievers.
Yes, it is true that “people want to work at successful companies,” but I would choose to not work at a successful company that is composed of jerks and assholes. Beer on Tap, No Meeting Thursdays and Foosball are simply shallow aspects of company culture and are less important than the character and intent behind the venture. I have a choice in how I invest my time. If a startups seeks my talent and experiences they will need to actively shape a culture that matches my expectations.
That’s a flaw I see in McKinnon’s argument - talent has choice and success of a young venture is based on it’s ability to attract top talent.
In addition, I do hope that beyond the economics of success, founders place equal importance on building a lasting venture that has a positive impact on their communities and society. To that degree, it would be worthy to consider the merits of a “Gross National Happiness” measurement model for businesses. For some, consider establishing such aspirations irrevocably via a B Corporation declaration.
But for all, explicitly shaping the character of the company through culture must occur before a company scales. Founders need to establish a foundational culture at an early stage because their power to influence diminishes in proportion to team growth. This becomes especially true as a team becomes distributed across a larger geography. Culture should be adaptable over time and be sensitive to localities, but as a founder you’re going to want your extended leadership team to carry your ideals to all corners of the globe.
Establishing a culture that promotes strong character does not imply spending every waking hour producing inspirational posters or constantly debating ethics. Participate and encourage a conversation fueled journey that complements your growth. By choosing not to consider culture the void will be filled by others. And one day you may awake and not recognize the company you started.