When Culture Bites Back

Culture happens, so decide who and how culture is shaped

One of my favorite songs growing up was a tune by David Bowie. It was from his 1971 album Hunky Dory and the chorus remains one of his most memorable, particularly the last two lines:

“Time may change me. But you can't trace time.”

We cannot slow or stall the effect time has on our surroundings, relationships, and ourselves. It marches on, changing everything we know and touch. Therefore trying to claw back the past is a hopeless exercise. As Bowie says, you can’t trace time.

A few days ago, the past came back to haunt the present for one well-known tech company. Over a decade ago, a list of funny customer names was started in the support team. Having been in support as part of a job rotation program, I can sympathize with how challenging the job can be from a morale standpoint, so injecting a bit of humor into the day can help relieve the stress.

Over the years as the list grew and circulated, a quick way to blow off steam started to become a problem. The list was no longer funny. Some of the humor crossed the line into inappropriate, disrespectful, and racist. Employees were growing increasingly uncomfortable that this thing existed. Some took this as a sign that this was the right time and opportunity to raise awareness of diversity and inclusion in the company.

Then as soon as real work on diversity was to begin, the hammer fell. In a public blog post, the CEO announced a number of startling and drastic changes. At the top of the list was a ban on “societal and political discussions on our company account”.

The responses were swift and furious. Tech Twitter had decided pretty strongly that the post was tone deaf and hypocritical given how politically vocal the founders have been over the years and how the company actively encouraged employees to bring their whole selves to work. Besides, what topic isn’t political these days? Even topics like parental leave benefits can cause workplace strife.

In some ways, the incident at Basecamp reflects a similar controversary at Coinbase last summer. The CEO made a public pronouncement that political discussions would be off-limits on internal communications platforms. Given that the level of activism, protest, and political discourse was at its height in the US at the same time, the move was swiftly criticized.

In the case of Basecamp however, the situation is not really about politics at all. It is about the control of culture. What we saw this week was a wresting of power back to the founders. As one employee shared about the situation:

“There’s always been this kind of unwritten rule at Basecamp that the company basically exists for David and Jason’s enjoyment.”

Few founders ever proactively think about culture at the beginning of their journey. With all the other things to do such as finding co-founders, validating the idea, building the minimum viable product, launching distribution, and doing all the company formation and operational stuff, culture is a low priority consideration that takes a backseat.

Despite the avoidance of discussing culture, every conversation, decision, hire, and product direction is contributing to culture. HubSpot, a tech company that thinks a lot about culture, had this to say:

“Culture happens. Whether planned or not, all companies have a culture. So why not create a culture we love?”

How does culture happen and who is shaping it? When any company starts, the “how” and “why” of how things are done is completely driven by the founders. What the founders say and do is gospel. This is Founder Culture. A friend of mine years ago described it well when I made the jump into startups, saying, “Startups are not democracies, they are dictatorships.”

Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, had this to share about culture building:

“A company’s culture is the foundation for future innovation. An entrepreneur’s job is to build the foundation.”

Building the culture is not an afterthought. It goes hand in hand with building the product, the team, and the go-to-market strategy. In fact, how a company innovates is directly influenced by the culture. If your culture is risk adverse or slow to make decisions, that will reflect in your speed to innovate or adjust strategy. If you have a “move fast and break things” culture, you will innovate quickly, but also might take dangerous shortcuts and downplay serious consequences.

While a founder is responsible for setting the culture, that role in culture changes over time. This is the shift from Founder Culture to Company Culture, something that happens at most companies. As a startup grows, hires more people, and opens offices, the culture of the founder gives way to influences of employees with their own ideas and values. While the founders shape and inform the culture early on, eventually the culture reflects the collective melding of beliefs and values driven by the vision of the organization.

That is at least how it should be in theory. Not every company escapes Founder Culture as we see in the case of Basecamp. These companies never truly reach the level of success that they might otherwise. These are organizations that are all about the founders for the benefit of the founders only, rather than a group of talented people and their collective wisdom that benefits everyone, including founders, employees, customers, and partners.

Common counter examples often cited are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos. What is often ignored is all the people behind the scenes that shaped and refined the culture from the imprint of the founders. These companies became more than their founders, and in some cases outgrew their founders as Apple did in the mid 80’s with Jobs.

At Amazon, culture has been shaped and refined over the past twenty-five years through the contributions of many brilliant people. The culture early on centered on Jeff Bezos’s customer obsession and door desks. A few simple values back in 1994 then evolved into a culture that now encompass 14 leadership principles.

These principles are the foundation of Amazon’s success. This is crucial for a company as large and global as Amazon with over one million employees. To maintain laser focus on customer obsession and continuous innovation, the leadership principles guide every aspect of strategy, decision making, and execution at the individual, team, and company level.

How can a company, whether startup, small business, or global enterprise, maintain and reinforce culture as it grows and expands? For Amazon, it comes down to tightly coupling culture into the hiring process and using mechanisms that ensure that every person hired is aligned to the leadership principles and would raise the bar on team performance. In part 2 of this post, I will share thoughts that I presented at the last CTO Connection Summit on the philosophy behind the Amazon hiring process and how tying culture to the hiring process can significantly improve hiring results and team performance.

Does your organization have a set of principles to guide strategy, decision making, and execution? How do those principles operate in practice in the work your team does?

Mark Birch, Editor & Founder of DEV.BIZ.OPS

Leave a comment

The past several weeks have been exciting as the AWS Startups club on Clubhouse has grown. In one month, the club has grown to over 1,300 folks around the globe, all through the weekly shows I have launched in the Americas, EMEA, and APAC, on topics ranging from building MVP’s to AR/VR/gaming tech to scaling SaaS companies to highlighting stories from startup founders.

There are two shows I am particularly excited about coming soon:

Click the links to save the events to your calendar and follow the AWS Startups club to get notifications for upcoming shows. If you do not have Clubhouse yet and need an invite, I have plenty to share (note still iOS only till Android is released in May).

And if you want to be a guest on the show, I would ❤️LOVE❤️ to have you. It can be in any time zone since all regions are covered and it helps if you are building and / or supporting AWS in some way. Even if you are at a huge company, you can still be a guest if there is some sort of angle that is useful for startups.

I am also doing speaking at events for various groups around the globe, and the next one is this Friday, April 30th at 6 PM KST for SaaStock Local in Seoul. The session will be in English and I will be talking about building and scaling startups. Do check it out if you have time on Friday!

Want to learn more about DEVBIZOPS and read more hot takes about IT, technology, and working smarter. Receive our weekly newsletter by signing up to our Substack!