“For us, our #1 priority is company culture. Our belief is that if we get the culture right, most of the other stuff — like delivering great customer service, or building a long-term enduring brand and business — will happen naturally on its own.” Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.
No matter how elegant or well thought out a company’s strategy is, it will only succeed if it’s aligned to the culture of the company. As Peter Drucker wrote, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. One of the most important factors for the success of a start-up is to build a robust cultural DNA, where cultural DNA refers to the combination of values, motivation, team spirit and behaviour shared by the team.
At its most basic, cultural DNA is the collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one start-up team from another. Cultural DNA exists within a start-up, whether the founding team takes the time to clarify and define it or not. The values, beliefs, motivations, and behaviour of the founders are the first genetic strands that form the backbone of the company’s cultural DNA. A company’s cultural DNA develops from the initial social structures inherent within the founding team. It is a product of such factors as orientation to life, behavioural conventions, policies/processes/procedures (or lack thereof), how the team communicates and works together, how the company deals with failure, mistakes and learning, and even national culture. It is counterproductive to try and borrow another successful company’s cultural DNA because the founding team consists of unique individuals, and therefore the cultural DNA of each company will be unique.
As a start-up gains traction, the team will spend an increasing amount of time focusing on growth, expanding the business and bringing in new employees, so investing time in shaping an attractive cultural DNA will make the start-up more effective, a great place to work and increase the company’s chances of building the best possible team. Cultural DNA should be treated like a valuable asset within a start-up, an asset that will appreciate over time if it is managed and developed correctly. Cultural DNA can be strengthened or weakened by adding new team members. If a team member acts in accordance with the fundamentals, then that culture resides in them; if they do not share those values or behaviours, then they do not share that cultural DNA.
The first strands of a start-up’s cultural DNA are defined by the founding team, yet the cultural DNA is not static; it develops over time and it is critical that the founders invest time to develop and nurture their cultural DNA. To build the strongest foundations for their start-up, the founders first have understand what their cultural DNA actually is, decide how they want to develop it, and then start to move the team towards the desired culture. The first step in that process involves understanding the values of the founders, the team and the company.
Part I of a multi blog post.
Next blog – Cultural DNA and Values.