“What’s the culture of your organization?” You hear this question asked all the time in the Valley. Whether you’re interviewing for a job or the interviewer yourself, it’s an important question that shouldn’t be undervalued. If you’re the one going for a job, you will want to listen carefully for those elements of corporate culture that are important to you. If you’re the interviewer, you should know the answer to this question because if the candidate is serious about a career move they will undoubtedly ask.

Whether it’s the HBR, Peter Drucker or grad students in organizational psychology working on their dissertations, there’s no shortage of articles, blogs, news stories and academic studies generated on the topic of corporate culture. But the thing is, from my experience, you can’t establish or control a culture. It’s going to happen one way or the other. That’s how human beings work in groups – a culture, an ethos, a gestalt, some overall “personality” is woven into the place.

While culture will inevitably happen within any organization, what you can do as a leader is shape your company’s culture. And the best way to do that is to have a clear idea of the people you want to bring onto your team. I’ve blogged about it before, and I keep coming back to it as a critical element. For us at Formation, it’s about prioritizing passion over personal achievement, and team players over the solo rider. Sure, we hire engineers who thrive on solving complex technical problems. And, our sales and marketing folks come with a proven track record of success. Those things are table stakes. What’s different about our recruitment process is that we find people who like working in teams and who value the contributions and opinions of others. Because our culture is driven by the philosophy that we will all be more motivated to come into work each day when we have the opportunity to to grow, learn and tackle a challenge together from all angles. I can sum up our culture in one word. Synergy. The whole is greater than the simple sum of its parts.

Building a culture is also about what you do as an employer to set a certain tone within your organization. And I’m not talking about these grand “creative gestures” or gimmicks you read in the news about how companies these days have free beer and fireman’s poles. No, I’m talking about other gestures that, while smaller in nature, can make a world of difference. I am a big believer in understanding some of the challenges our employees face in their day-to-day lives and doing what we can to make things a little easier and less stressful. For instance, we do free lunches at the Formation offices in the Bay Area because it’s a total nuisance to drive to a restaurant. We also offer better health insurance benefits than major competitors in the industry because I don’t want people worrying about their families’ health benefits. We save the creative things for good causes like our See-a-Demo-Give-a-Goat campaign.

At the end of the day, culture happens – whether you want it to or not. But you can definitely take steps to shape it. It’s setting the right tone and putting in some occasional guardrails that allow it to flourish in the right direction for your organization.


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