A business is the sum of its parts. But ensuring those parts are embracing the same values and forming a positive culture is more art than science
A company’s culture can be hard to define. It can entail anything from how people speak to their colleagues and how conflict is dealt with to how late people stay in the office and how much collaboration versus competition there is. But it’s also interlinked with what the company stands for. For many entrepreneurs, it’s important that they’re able to look at their company as it grows and know that it’s reflective of their personality and mission. But to what extent can you engineer your culture – and can you hire your way out of a toxic one?
Whether it’s Facebook bringing the world closer together or Airbnb helping people belong anywhere, some of the world’s most successful startups have a strong sense of what they stand for and it’s important that their employees feel the same. This is particularly true for startups with a strong social purpose like OLIO, the app that connects people who either want to receive or give away surplus food. “Aligning with our values is mission critical for us and it’s the first thing we recruit for,” says Tessa Cook, the company’s co-founder. “If somebody didn’t care about sustainability, that would be a problem.”
And as well as expecting staff to believe in what the company believes in, some startups are paying attention to personality types too. “The Bumble employee has a certain je ne sais quoi: an energy and a lust for life,” says Louise Troen, director of global marketing and communications at Bumble, the dating app where women make the first move. “Everyone is creative, passionate and so supportive of each other. There’s no mathematical formula at play but having hired people who had the required skill set but didn’t have the right personality type, we know what we’re looking for.” Bumble isn’t afraid to be forthright about who they’re looking for either. “So many companies are worried about being accused of discriminating against people based on personality but the truth is that there are some people who just wouldn’t feel as comfortable in our environment,” Troen adds.
To screen candidates for culture, startups have a range of options. At Bumble, Troen likens the process to going on a date. “Knowing you’ve found the right person for the job is very much like that feeling you get when you meet someone on a date and you just know whether they’re a good fit or not,” she says. “Of course we don’t base everything on personality but we do hire instinctively: people should have a magic about them when they walk into the room.” At OLIO, meanwhile, Cook has a favourite litmus test to help her assess people. “When someone’s really passionate, we find that they can’t help but share some sort of personal anecdote about why they care about food waste,” she reveals. Conversely, all potential employees of Gousto, the recipe-kit startup, sit through a separate, face-to-face culture interview with people from a range of teams. But for Richard Watts, director of people make it work, the change-management consultancy, interviews should be accompanied by simulations of situations they might encounter. He also advocates asking evidence-based questions so people don’t just tell you what you want to hear. It sounds time-consuming but he explains it’s worth the effort. “It’s easy to hire fast when you’re under pressure but these are the people who you’re building a business with, so take your time,” he says.
Culture doesn’t form magically though – however cleverly you hire. It usually stems from the company’s founders and their leadership team. “I’ve built the business from the ground up, which means I’ve played a huge role in determining Gousto’s culture,” says Timo Boldt, the startup’s founder. “Creating a respectful and open culture has always been important to me and I rely heavily on my team to preserve and enhance what makes us unique.” While the company’s employees don’t need to be foodies, they do need to show an ability to think very big and be curious – traits Boldt demonstrates himself.
So it stands to reason that when a company culture becomes muddied, change has to come from the top down. “If you just paper over the cracks you won’t see fundamental change,” says Watts. “But when you get rid of the expensive jet or change the leadership team, these sorts of totemic shifts change the story and therefore the behaviour of people in the company.” Uber, the ride-hailing app, is certainly hoping that its recent changes will help shift the direction of its story, which has been unrelentingly negative in recent months. Not only has it hired Bozoma Saint John as its chief brand officer but founder Travis Kalanick finally resigned in the face of investor pressure – though he’ll still stay on the company’s board.
However, as a startup grows its head count, steering the culture in the right direction can start to become a challenge – even when the leadership is strong. “In this day and age, it’s unforgivable for organisations to not describe what they care about and what their mission is,” says Watts. Rather than allowing their culture to be something intangible, companies are enshrining them more formally. Netflix has even published an online guide to its culture that’s over 4,000 words that details its “people over process” philosophy and the kind of behaviour its employees should demonstrate. The benefit of being clear about what it’s like to work at your startup is that people who agree with your approach will be naturally drawn to you. Bumble and OLIO, for example, find that most of their candidates apply after coming across the brand at events or on social media and connecting with its principles.
But the danger of hiring for culture and having a strong sense of the type of person you’re looking for is that you could end up with a homogenous workforce. When an entrepreneur starts to grow the business and – often reluctantly – lets go of certain tasks, the tendency can be to fill the office with people in their own likeness. But this bias, even if it’s unconscious and well-intentioned, isn’t exactly a recipe for diversity. “Founders should be thinking about which disciplines they’re less good at and then looking for people who are loads better in those areas,” Watts concludes. “Startups thrive when they have a range of opinions so they should seek out people who are the diametrical opposite of those they already have. When you start getting groupthink, you’re in dangerous territory.”