Perception vs reality: Do you know what your real company culture is?


This article is the second of a 6-part series that addresses common growing pains and challenges that startups encounter, and offers advice on how to bypass these hurdles while keeping your team and customers top of mind.

There’s a lot of conversation around startup culture. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find articles on “5 Things You Should Do…”, “7 Things You Shouldn’t Do…”, “What ‘South Park’ Teaches about Culture…”, and hundreds more. It’s a hot topic, and everyone has an opinion.

But, advice columns aside, how do you properly self-assess your own startup culture? And how much can you really influence it? In my last Inc. Magazine post, I talked broadly about how our investment round impacted our culture. That triggered a lot of asks for me to write more about what observers were calling our “great” culture. But, when I sat down to write, I realized that I wasn’t sure how the ingredients came together to produce it. When I looked around, I saw a young, driven company with a clear sense of purpose. I saw a global company with a diverse group of people from many different backgrounds. I saw hardworking people driven by a deep sense of customer commitment but who didn’t take themselves too seriously and kept a great sense of humor. I saw fast collaboration enabled by open workspaces across all our locations. I saw clearly defined values–disruption, speed, accountability, and integrity. But, candidly, I still didn’t have a clear definition of our culture and, more importantly, I didn’t have a good definition for what culture actually is.

Question 1: But what is “culture”?

To answer the question, I decided to have a chat with my friend, Jim Arena, a workplace culture expert who has spent the last 15 years consulting on HR and workplace strategies for both startups and large enterprises. What I’ve always appreciated about Jim is that he can distill complex topics into actionable insight.

Jim has a straightforward definition of culture he’s developed over the years. “Culture,” he says, “is how work gets done in your company.” It is the invisible hand that accelerates and decelerates your company strategy. The strength of your culture is actually determined by how well aligned it is to your strategy.

It took me a few minutes to wrap my head around this new concept. But when I applied the definition to Anaplan–how we hire, how we develop software, how we engage our customers, how we sell our solution, how we partner in the marketplace–the definition held true.

Question 2: So, what is OUR culture?

Now that I had a definition of culture in hand, I was ready to test my own belief of what ours was. I decided to share a short survey with some of our team, customers, investors, and even candidates in active interview cycles. We asked a few simple questions about how work gets done at Anaplan.

The answers were remarkably consistent across the board. The feedback was that Anaplan is fast-paced, committed, and exciting while being fun and welcoming. We run really hard, really fast. This is no surprise since we have grown 10x in the last 24 months. This doesn’t come without some growing pains. How we get work done is not for the faint of heart.

What I did not anticipate though is how strongly our culture is really felt by our team, our customers, and our partners. I also underestimated how much our culture requires personalities that naturally thrive in a hyper-growth environment.

Question 3: So where do we go from here?

I was yet again left with questions: how can I protect the many good attributes of our culture in spite of the massive growth ahead of us? How do we effectively foster culture while putting in place the necessary structure and processes? So I created a short list of four action items to help us on our way.

Make our values tangible

I don’t want our values to be fluff words that employees gloss over. It’s become clear to me that we have to continually reinforce our values with tangible examples. Each value has to tie to stories that we tell about ourselves and tell to new employees. What do we really mean by Accountability? What are real-life examples of it in action? How do we apply it?

Keep a consistent pattern in decision-making

When your company grows to hundreds of employees, people are not scrutinizing the individual decisions made by executives, but rather the way in which the decisions are made. Essentially, the pattern of decision-making is more important than the decisions themselves. For my executive team, that means that we need to be consistent in how we work. That, in and of itself, is a highly, visible reinforcement of culture for Anaplan.

Have courage to acknowledge that our company is not a fit for everyone

This is a tough one. We need to admit to ourselves that Anaplan simply doesn’t work for everyone. A strong culture means that people are likely to love or hate it here. There’s not a lot of middle ground. We have to actively interview candidates about how they get work done. We also need to be okay with cutting the cord quickly with a new hire if they simply aren’t working out. Not everyone is a fit and that’s okay.

Listen to the stories we tell 

Like any group that has a shared culture, what are the stories that we tell each other and to new employees? This is a great barometer for determining how culture is shifting–for good or bad. We all need to have our ears to the ground listening. What are we saying to each other? How do we adjust how we work to change these stories?

It’s going to take each of us across every part of the organization to embrace and maintain the strong culture we have. This exercise has made me acutely aware of the importance of our culture. I need to constantly challenge my understanding of how we work by spending time with our teams around the world and with our customers and partners–listening and asking questions. Are we working together in stride globally? Are we hiring the right people? Is how we work consistent in style and purpose and value no matter the location? It’s not enough to just temperature check with one-off surveys like I did for this article. I need to be out there regularly talking to every team and hearing their stories to better understand the invisible hand of culture. How we get work done matters and I want to know about it.

There’s a lot of air miles ahead for me.