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Tim Sanders: Three Keys To Building Culture

Tim Sanders: Three Keys To Building Culture

Leadership and social media expert Tim Sanders was the chief solutions officer and leadership coach at Yahoo, and is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestseller Love Is The Killer App: How to Win Business & Influence Friends. Tim shares his keys to building “culture” at work, below:

Earlier this year, I was sitting around a table of successful entrepreneurs, listening to them talk about lessons learned in start-up world.  One founder would soon sell his company for almost two hundred million dollars and the person sitting across from him had just successfully raised one hundred million bucks from Silicon Valley VCs. These two cats knew their stuff.

“If you could change anything about how you built your business, what would it be?” the recently funded CEO asked.

“I would have built culture from day one,” replied the soon-to-be-swimming in dollars CEO.  “Just like Tony did at Zappos, start with culture then layer on a strategy.  If you wait until 20 people, it’s probably too late.  If you wait until 100 people, you’ll need to clean house unless you’ve been very lucky in recruiting people that are naturally tuned into your values.”  Deep.

Recently, I gave a keynote at Foundercon, an annual leadership event for Tech Stars alumns. Along with sharing my perspective from Love Is the Killer App, I talked to them about the critical importance of prioritizing the building of culture.  My message was that when culture builds itself, the buildings look like silos–not a collaborative web.

I believe that culture is a conversation about “how we do things here.” Most culture is centered on how team members relate to each other as well as the outside world.   The leaders initiate the conversation, then punctuate it with action.  They don’t hire people that don’t fit the culture and they reward the ones that do in succession planning.  It’s all done very publicly, often talked about and frequently marketing at a visual level.

Whether you are starting a company or a team, if you want to lead, be on top of the conversation.  The value of culture building lies in Henry Chesbrough’s definition of the concept: “A set of values, properly expressed and enforced, that creates a system of social control.” If the culture is strong, every team member knows exactly what to do, even when the leaders aren’t there to tell them.  If the culture is about transparency, information is disclosed when asked for. If it’s about putting the customer first, then refunds with no questions asked are given by associates, even before it becomes a codified policy.

Here are the three keys to building culture:

1.  Choose a few values that define the purpose of your business.  Make sure they are based on helping people or solving their problems.  Choose values you can get a teenager and a grand parent excited about.  HINT: “Maximizing shareholder returns” is a really lame value statement.  Sounds like a corporate conglomerate, which is fine for investors…but they are gone after they write the check…you need talent, partners and fans.

2. Adopt rituals to promote your values, and integrate them into the fabric of your group.  Not just signs or placards, you need to plan events or choreograph group behavior around values.  If you value collaboration, have a Friday beer bust and be mindful of messaging.  If you value customer experience, host an annual gathering of them to open your ears and iterate.  Saturn automobile used this ritual to build relationships with customers, and at the same time, to cement their values around creating a wow experience for customers.

3. Use these values to make hiring, budgetary, firing and rewards decision.  If you are working at an established company, but fear that you need to re-build culture–you’ll likely need to let a few people go that don’t fit.  Words may resonate, but actions motivate others to buy-in.

By Tim Sanders/February 2014