An overhead picture of a desk with four arms fist-bumping in the middle of it. The fist bump symbolizes culture.

How & why to act like a VC-backed startup (#4: Prioritize company culture)

Dave Labowitz Scale

An overhead picture of a desk with four arms fist-bumping in the middle of it. The fist bump symbolizes business culture.

This is the fourth part of a twelve-part series. It’s a deep look behind the scenes of the “business playbook” that makes VC-backed companies successful and how to apply these lessons to your business. 

  • If you’re looking for the introduction to the series and first article, please click here.
  • If you’re looking for other articles in the series, links are at the bottom of this article. Enjoy!

4. Make your company culture a priority

When you’re out of the office what do you think determines how your team performs? Culture! VC-backed companies know this and go to great lengths to create and protect a positive culture. 

But what is company culture? 

Simply, your company culture is the common set of behaviors regularly practiced by your team members. If you want your organization to have a great culture, you’ll need to identify the behaviors you want to recur and record them as your company’s Operating Principles.

This exercise normally starts with brainstorming. Think about the best performers on your team. What do they do that makes them successful? How can you describe their behaviors so they can be replicated? What have your company’s biggest wins been? What did you or your team do to create them? 

The more specific you are about the behaviors you desire, the more your culture will hit the mark. For example, for great customer service, your first thought might be “We take care of the customer”. But that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. “We keep problem-solving until the customer says they’re happy” sets a clearer expectation.

Similarly, if you’re dedicated to preventing burnout on your team, something like “We practice self-care” may spring to mind. But does that really describe a behavior? Not exactly. “We take time off when we feel we need it” would be more effective.

Lead by example

While your company culture is the behavior of everyone in your organization, culture starts at the senior level and flows down the org chart. It doesn’t matter what you say or hang on the wall on a pretty poster. What you do as a leader will be mimicked and adopted by others in your organization. As an example, have you ever worked in an organization where one of the senior leaders was absolutely obsessive about quality? I bet their team members, over time, learned to care about quality just as much. 

In this regard, you’ll want to keep your mind on both the positive and negative reinforcement your behavior gives to the team. If you want to maximize a healthy culture you’ll need to avoid modeling counterproductive behaviors just as much as embracing constructive ones. Your consistency will matter a lot.

Create rituals around your company culture

The companies who have great cultures don’t have them by accident. It’s not enough to lay out your culture strategy in your first year, hang it on the wall, and never review it again. If you truly want to commit to having a great culture, it takes practice.

The best way to strengthen your company culture is to put some rituals around it. The Ritz Carlton organization is an amazing example of this practice. Every morning, at every Ritz Carlton around the world, the team has a 10-minute stand-up meeting. During the meeting, they review their “service value of the day” (their name for operating principles). I’ve heard that any guest can stop any Ritz Carlton employee and ask to hear about the service value of the day and they’ll pull out a card, show it to you, and explain it. Pretty incredible! Ritz Carlton has 12 service values, so each one is covered almost three times per month. It’s that kind of ritualization that will create a truly unified culture.

What else can you do?

There are other culture statements that can help guide your organization’s strategy and decision-making. Mission Statements, Vision Statements, and Lists of Core Values are key parts of a comprehensive strategy for a great company culture, as well.  If you’re interested in going deeper into your company culture, I’ve published a comprehensive guide on the subject. You can download it here.

Want a great company culture? Download this!

The Culture Statements Compendium
This document, complete with instructions, examples, and even a questionnaire for your team, will show you how to make your culture actionable rather than abstract.

Other articles in the VC-backed startup series are:

This series will continue next week with Part 5.