Company Culture: Startups That Have to Grow Up

In the last three months, the words “company culture” have come up more times than I can count on two hands. It was talked about at a JuntoCompany's advisory board meeting, two company's Mentor Team meetings, and then there was an entire class dedicated to the topic.

What is company culture? It is the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. This includes a company's expectations, experiences, philosophy, and values that hold it together, and is expressed in its self-image, inner workings, interactions with the outside world, and future expectations. It is based on shared attitudes, beliefs, customs, and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid. Also called corporate culture or organizational culture, it's shown in:

  1. the ways the organization conducts its business, treats its employees, customers, and the wider community, 

  2. the extent to which freedom is allowed in decision-making, developing new ideas, and personal expression, 

  3. how power and information flow through its hierarchy, and 

  4. how committed employees are towards collective objectives.

Culture affects the organization's productivity and performance, and provides guidelines on customer care and service, product quality and safety, attendance and punctuality, and concern for the environment. It also extends to production-methods, marketing and advertising practices, and to new product creation. Organizational culture is unique for every organization, cannot be replicated or duplicated, and it is one of the hardest things to change.

Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires. But at some point, as the company grows, it needs to be defined. 

This is the case for one of the JuntoAlumni companies. Up until now, their corporate culture has been what it is like with most startup companies: existent but unwritten. The company is growing and, as a result, their new COO wants to bring in more structure while maintaining the “startup culture” that exists. Some of the questions that came from this situation are how do you do this, when do you do this, and who does it?

Some of the experiences that were shared by this company's advisory board were hiring an external HR consultant, creating an employee handbook with general guidelines, clearly defining and documenting values (in addition to mission and vision statements), and hiring well. The common thread in all of these suggestions was that the CEO has to set the environment, that is, it is the CEO’s responsibility to engineer the environment his team will work in. 

According to Tom Walter, CEO of Tasty Catering, “Employee engagement is a leading indicator of company culture. The number one most researched word online last year [2014] in the Merriam Dictionary was “culture”. Culture is now becoming critically important”. For Tasty Catering, one of the critical points about company culture is that it underpins competitive advantage and higher financial performance. They know this because the company continues to get local and national recognition for its culture and outperforms its competition in terms of profitability.  

There is a Brad Feld quote that says, “You can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated”. I can personally speak to this. 

As soon as I stepped foot into The Junto Institute office to meet Catherine, it felt like this is the place I need to be. The second time I stepped foot into the Junto office to meet the rest of the JuntoTeam (Raman, Remo, and Caroline), I felt the same way again. A fortunate stroke of serendipity? Yes and no. The best thing about Junto is the company culture. There is a full commitment from Raman and Catherine that we are in this together, and they have created an environment with lots of opportunity for growth. I am motivated because I get value out of the work that I put in and the tremendous experience that I am gaining.

One of my absolute favorite company values (that is on our window for those that have visited the Junto office at Catapult Chicago) is “trust the process”. This value and the intentional environment that Catherine and Raman have created has made the first 90-plus days of my experience at Junto the best in my professional career.