The rise and sustainable success of companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Apple and Ebay cannot be explained only by their original ideas, IP and innovations. A key reason they are able to sustain and expand their success to multi-billion businesses is their culture and their mindset – which literally opens minds, possibilities and attracts exactly the people they need. If you talk to the people and go inside these companies, you immediately understand that culture plays a key role.
So, if you still think organizational culture is somehow “soft,” not “graspable” and actually not so important, you might be wrong: organizational culture is very hard in terms of direct impact. It is tangible, can be specifically shaped and might be the critical success factor.
Why? Because new growth and the sustainable future of organizations depend on the ability to adjust and deal with complexity, ambiguity, speed of change (speed will increase), transparency of markets, well-informed and demanding customers and new competitors from emerging markets. Plus attracting and retaining the best talent. The next generation of companies are designed for people creating robots, not for structures making robots out of people.
Traditional companies are overwhelmed by these challenges and react in their stress mode: more control and more cost-cutting
People draw back, play safe and think small. Or leave. Or don’t join in the first place. As one solution, companies try to transplant new organizational models again a technical approach to a human problem. You might get the old mindset pressed in a new “social technology.”
The look and feel of empowering culture
To make “culture” more tangible, I put together some examples and stories:
- Appreciation: A young Austrian told us that at eBay, interns are welcomed with the following information: “Dear Interns, you are now our most important employees. We urgently need your ideas, challenges and inputs to ensure our future.” Then they are given important and meaningful jobs from the very beginning. In contrast, in his experience as an Austrian “Praktikant” intern, he was literally asked to make coffee and do some low-level work that no one else wanted to do.
- Ownership: At Facebook you are welcomed at day one with the message: This is now your company. And your opinion is as important as anyone else’ No problem you see is someone else’s problem
- Performance and incentives: The pressure is high. Not the pressure to work hard but to deliver fast and create value for the organization. You cannot hide behind job descriptions, colleagues or blame the circumstances. From the start, you have access to everything you need without asking anyone, you just get it. The salaries in these companies are high already.
- Speed: SAP/Silicon Valley: A new hires needs six weeks until s/he has all of the equipment and access to the software s/he needs. By this time, a friend at FB has already contributed important insights and created new value.
- Transparency: Every Friday afternoon, Mark Zuckerberg and his management team go into a global open Q&A, and all employees are invited, personally or online. You may ask literally everything, and people ask all of the hard questions possible, challenging their management team directly: everything is answered. Nothing is taboo.
- Trust: People are trusted, have access to resources, codes, information. Nothing leaks outside.
- Enthusiasm: I have never heard so many people talk so enthusiastically about their work and the companies they work for than regarding Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, eBay, etc. They love their work, they say things like: “I enjoy working with the smartest people, I enjoy the challenge, the impact I can create.”
- Purpose: People know exactly what the organization’s purpose is and they totally identify with it. Literally all tech companies try to create technical solutions to human problems. This is how it sounds: We are building Facebook to make the world more open and transparent, which we believe will create greater understanding and connection. Or LinkedIn: To create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce.
- Fluidity: These organizations have some very clear structural features, such as a reporting line and quarterly feedback and evaluations, but otherwise employees are free to contribute based on their own skills, interests and current challenges. At Google, people are free to create projects and initiatives when needed and to switch teams. And they are fully responsible to make sure they use their own resources in the best possible way.
- Mindfulness and meditation are fundamental, not esoteric: While I am still reluctant for several reasons to use these words in European companies, they are completely accepted and welcomed in Silicon Valley tech companies. There is a shared understanding that one needs to have a clear mind and work on one’s spiritual and psychological well-being in order to create value and to perform well. Google has created its “Search Inside Yourself” program and has a Conscious Officer. LinkedIn also has its Chief Conscious Officer, Fred Kofman, running programmes of teachings and facilitated group reflections in the company.
- Failure and success are different sides of one coin, not the opposite: When serial entrepreneur James Butterfield had to shut down a new venture, having burned 12 million USD of venture capital, he offered to give back the remaining five million – and was told to keep the money and try to build something else with a skeleton crew. So, a small group created Slack, the first goal being to communicate better in their former start-up, having gotten fed up with e-mail and its poor performance regarding facilitating tension-creating communication. Slack is now one of the fastest-growing software companies on the planet. (If your company isn’t already using Slack, it will be soon. Say goodbye to e-mail).
- Generosity: People have access to high-quality, complimentary food, drinks, snacks, services and more. While this is helpful in increasing output, it is rarely seen elsewhere.
- Smart workspaces: While I still see many organizations in traditional set-ups, these companies create a working atmosphere you’d like to experience. It is practical, human and offers many options, depending on the tasks you work on and the needs you have. Supporting collaboration and interaction as much as possible while offering private and quiet spaces, too.
- Pragmatism and simplicity: At Facebook, employees are taught how to create their own posters with their own messages and post them on the walls, any wall. When the new employee asked where s/he was allowed to hang the posters, the response was, “wherever you find space.”
- Aligning personal and corporate interests: These companies are not non-profit companies. Still they manage to align business interests with a noble purpose that encourages people. Instead of saying, “Well, they only do this to earn more money,” you could say, “Wow, how do they manage to create great workspaces, where people love to work, find purpose and are highly profitable at the same time? What if there is a positive correlation?”
- Self-responsility: People have to be self-driven and take self-responsility. Waiting for someone to tell you what to do doesn’t work. You tune into the team and contribute what is needed now. And you often have to find out by yourself.
Culture needs to be cultivated
These cultures are cultivated out of a sometimes unconscious and authentic process. Many times, the famous start-up/garage culture. Starting with something, going in iterations, adapting fast.
As organizations grow out of their start-up phase, they have to make the implicit explicit. To make culture tangible by preaching, teaching and writing principles, mottos, values and “teachable principles.”
- Making them explicit and communicating
- Living up to it – especially by the leadership teams
- Demanding it from others and, in case, making consequences
Inside Facebook, you see posters and values all over. You will not find the typical objective values such as openness, transparency, integrity, bla bla, but specific ones, like:
– Be bold – Focus on impact – Done is better than perfect – Be open – What would you do if you weren’t afraid? – Name things based on what they are – Please don’t hesitate.
Variety of cultures – every company has its own “character“:
The corporate cultures are very distinct from each other, not designed artificially but imprinted by the beliefs and personal cultures of the founders.
Slack, for example, wants to create a company culture for “grown-ups with children, with lives beyond work.” James Butterfield is 42 himself and has kids. Hence, one of the company’s mottos is: “work hard and go home.” At 6:30pm, offices are empty. This would not be the case in other companies.
A new definition of leadership
These outstanding companies manage tasks and not people – and you know what? Even the new “leadership” thinking already seems outdated; the job of the leaders is not leading people, but inspiring them, thinking/shaping/speaking possible futures and creating a context for powerful people to perform at their best.
Leading by example is the simplest idea: Be the change you want to see. That’s about it. Good people don’t need someone to lead them all the time. They lead themselves as they align around the shared set of purpose, principles and strategic directions.
For example, James Butterfield (CEO of Slack), sees his job “less about making stuff and more about communicating values.”
The only way to prevent the organizational drift he fears as Slack scales up is to “continually remind people” what it stands for.
The “morphic field“ of Silicon Valley
“The Valley” is not so much a place, but a concept; it is a spirit and it lives in the morphic field of the hippie movement combined with the tech business. It is a very special place, unlike any I have seen and experienced elsewhere. It also produces an eco-system of its own, nourished by institutions such as Stanford University, representing the business, tech and innovational spirit, and Berkeley University on the other end, representing more the human and hippie spirit and UC San Francisco in between. This area has become a global hot spot, attracting people from all over the world combining business, tech, spirituality and openness to new ideas in a very unique way.
This explains why all efforts to “copy” Silicon Valley have to fail. There is no need to copy but rather to learn from it and create a cultural field of your own, using the individual strengths of the very region you are in. AND there are many organizations with fantastic cultures that are not in the Silicon Valley, of course.
Why this post is so enthusiastic and not critical?
Most people are good in questioning everything, searching and finding the “hair in the soup,” always suspicious about a hidden agenda, the downside, the threats (as we say in German “das Haar in der Suppe suchen”). Of course, not everything is perfect, there are many things we can criticize about FB, Google & Co, but this time I focused on what is great, what can we learn? What can we appreciate? When I told Americans about the European shitstorm following Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement to donate 99% of his fortune, they just could not believe it.
However, like it or not, these companies become more successful and powerful every day, and other companies better speed up on revamping their cultural mindsets, if they want to play any relevant role and ensure their impact in future.
“Better create something and be criticized than create nothing and criticize others”