Culture Clubbed…

The Culture Club – This place is so f*cking cool!

Culture is one of the top 3 thing that I believe a business must get right in order to survive, let alone thrive. If people positively resonate with the culture, then amazing things can happen. Conversely, if the culture sucks, people don’t give their best efforts, political infighting becomes the major focus, and the company inevitably dies a painful, reality show-like death. Nobody wants this outcome, but it can happen very easily.

A few weeks ago, I had a great chat with a friend about a common former employer (who shall remain nameless). I let the conversation sit in my mind for a bit, and I found myself incredibly disappointed with my former employer. Not that I should care about the employer (business is business), but I’m the kind of guy who cares about good people who are collateral damage in a bad transition. When I worked there, it was widely considered to be one of the coolest places to work in the entire USA. The culture encouraged risk taking and hard work/serious play, gave you recreation passes, serious discounts, and a general sense of camaraderie that pushed people to perform at their best on a daily basis. Employees genuinely cared about the company’s outcome. The company attracted loads of rockstars, and growth seemed unstoppable. I had loads of fun there, and look upon that time as one of the funnest times I’ve had in a workplace (I know, crazy, but it does exist!). I left before the company went downhill, so hearing about its demise seems almost surreal and impossible. But as I said, cultural change can easily occur, and suddenly, you’re at the point of almost no return.

Do really want to hurt me?

Fast forward a few years, and the same once-awesome company experiences a crisis of culture. I’ll call it culture clubbing, akin to clubbing cute seals with a steel baseball bat. It’s simply f*cked up, but it sadly happens. The cool company suddenly wants to become a “grown up” company, and emulates their idols. It reminds me of the old Chinese adage – “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to the finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?” Well, the same can be said of trying to hard to imitate other great companies without understanding what made them great. Just because an idol engages in certain behavior or uses a certain technology doesn’t mean that you should also do so. But, if you’re stupid and hire yes-men, then you’ll look for the most obvious things in front of you for imitation. Understand the underlying reasons of why your idols are great, and avoid superficial imitation? That’s too hard and involves intelligence. Better to take the path that results in stunted and retarded progress. Which leads me to…

Karma Chameleon

Now, this once great company with awesome culture has seen their star performers leave, replaced by seemingly more “superior” people (at least on paper). The culture changed from work hard/play hard to cover your ass/engage in political infighting/focus on nothing important. Have sales, profit, EBIT, improved due to this culture and high-end resume makeover? Not one iota. Instead, the company financially stagnates, treats its employees like shit, and is plagued by political infighting. Employee morale has nosedived, people suddenly leave with no clear job prospects (ballsy in this economy), and everybody distrusts everybody else. A once open and honest company has become incredibly paranoid and self-centered. And because of the internal political bullshit, they are now very vulnerable to external competition, either from incumbents or a new entrant.

Culture Clubbed

The moral of this story is to focus on continuity of culture, regardless of where you are. Always strive to improve culture and build on the things that made you great. Avoid superficially imitating your idols (and you should have idols, just be smart about your flattery). And most importantly, treat your employees like intelligent people. You hopefully hired the smarter, better version of yourself and your customers. Give them the ability to operate at 100% creativity and ability. Make your culture the best place possible. Otherwise you’ll get culture clubbed and find yourself in a very deadly abyss where your employees hate your guts and you’re stuck in financial and market quicksand.

P.S. Not sure why I was on a Culture Club kick, but it somehow fits. Just go with it.

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