Building a Company Culture: Part I

In the next segment of our Founder’s Series, Zain shares some key lessons to consider when building a company’s culture.

A Quick Story on the Effects of Culture 

Earlier this year, a group of analysts at Goldman Sachs compiled a presentation detailing the brutal working conditions that junior investment bankers experience. 

You’ve probably heard or read about the story already, but I’m going to relink it here just in case you need a refresher. 

When the news first published reports on the presentation, there was a lot of murmuring about the authenticity of the survey (and the fact that only 13 analysts chose to participate). 

On one side, people argued that as young professionals fresh out of undergrad, being compensated with 6 figure salaries, there wasn’t much room to complain about conditions when they were already some of the nation’s top earners. Prominent ex-bankers even went so far as to say publicly that their analyst experiences shaped them into the magnates they are today.

The other side made a simple argument: no matter what job you had or how much you were making, people still deserved the right to be treated like professionals and be able to openly speak about what they considered workplace abuses. 

At the time, we weren’t sure at the time which side would ultimately win out - after all, this was a standard that had long been the tradition of investment banking, and had yet to seriously dent their ability to engage in lucrative business.

Yet, here we are, seven-plus months later and we have almost come full circle with Goldman Sachs reportedly deciding to join its peers in raising analysts’ salaries across all levels.

This could just be a coincidence, and there could have been other factors at play (including the summer phenomenon known as ‘The Great Resignation’), but one thing is clear: Goldman Sachs is paying closer attention to how they handle their company culture. 

And so should you.

How do we define a company’s culture? 

Before talking about our company’s culture or the lessons we learned along the way, we need to define what we mean by the phrase ‘company culture’. 

Culture: The rules of the game. Both the spoken and unspoken ones, reinforced by day to day actions by management, team members, and company systems. 

Culture is not a mission statement or a tired list of one liners pasted on your wall. It’s built slowly by how employees are awarded, how they are punished, what is considered ‘great’ work, and how people are expected to interact with one another. 

Much like habits and routine define much of a person’s personality, a culture is the habits & routines of a whole organization. 

Culture Defines A Lot More Than Our Work Life 

As a way to help define what we mean, let’s look at a culture that we all share. 

Our Families:

We all have families and their cultures have been a keystone in defining who we are. 

Some of us were raised in family cultures where we had daily family dinners, supportive parents who helped with our homework, and showed up to our sports matches. We had siblings and parents who said ‘I love you’ often and set the standard for how we deal with relationships. 

Others had families that had absent parents focused on their own priorities, children competing for affection through achievements like grades, and a lack of daily affection like hugs or ‘I love yous’. 

In both cases, the culture often makes us who we are as adults and is very heavily reinforced by the example set by our parents and the daily habits/routines we were raised on. 

Replace parents for management and daily routines with company processes, and you have a company culture. That culture forges us as employees and as companies. Often, far beyond the jobs we’re in. 

So, How Did Our Culture Evolve at Klyxx? 

At the start, our culture was all unwritten. It was just the way we did things. 

We were very young, ambitious, and fairly disenchanted by the usual corporate culture we were expected to follow. 

So, we built ourselves around a few general principles:

  1. We are here to enjoy our work. If you’re going to have to be at work for 8-10 hours a day, it shouldn’t be a slog. A lot of us left jobs that we hated because we didn't want to labor away at our nine to five, and we didn't want to be doing powerpoint presentations every single day. 
  1. We wanted flexible hours and flexible offices. We thought it was ridiculous to be expected to come to one physical space every single day at a set time just because that was the way ‘things were done’. This wasn’t an industrial era factory. 
  1. We focused on recruiting people we thought were intelligent, ambitious, and fiercely independent. Therefore, someone who didn’t need to be handheld. We didn’t have the management experience or time for people to take months to ramp up or need a lot of 1 on 1 time. 
  1. We were all self taught, so self learning naturally became a default expectation for everyone in the company. We expected people to be ready to read books, to watch videos, and to use the fact that we have access to all the knowledge of the world through the internet, to keep up with a very fast moving industry. 
  1. And then lastly, was our obsession with reputation. Because we were on the younger side, we had to claw our way to our first few clients because we didn’t have a track record. We’d walk into meetings with 40 year old executives whose skepticism could be felt at the opening handshake. So, we made sure to cultivate our reputations very carefully and leveraged it to grow our business from a 22 year old solo founder into an organization that scaled through almost purely referrals even as it hit 7 figures. That made a very clear impression on the company culture. We didn’t have room to burn bridges. 

These tenets evolved over the years and became a lot more formal as we learned the lessons shared below. 

We’ll be sharing a case study in the next few weeks with a breakdown of our current formal cultural pillars and the systems we have in place to reinforce them. 

The rest of this article is going to be more focused on the lessons we learned about culture’s impact on a company, how to formalize it, and examples of systems that we built. 

An Exercise to Help You Start on the Path to Building Your Company Culture

Here are the major lessons and the main exercise we developed over the last 5 years to really entrench and level up our culture. Our hope is that these become lessons you can take into your own journey developing your culture.

The Exercise: Envision a perfect day or week for your company. 

This is one of the most influential exercises we have done on repeat throughout the years to continually hone and forge our company’s culture. It helps clarify what you want your company culture to look like and what is involved in making it a reality. 

Ask yourself the following questions and write down the answers in detail: 

1. If you had to envision a perfect day or week for your company, what does it look like? 

  • How do you start the day with everyone? Is there a stand-up? Is everyone coming in on their own time? Are people all in an office? Are they working in a hybrid model? Are they all chatting amongst themselves or sitting down and quietly getting settled? 
  • What type of work are people doing? Mainly collaborative meetings? Mainly deep work over extended periods of solo time? 
  • How do people interact in the halls? Are they chatty? Are they quiet and focused? 
  • How are meetings run, ideally? Do they have agendas, actionables, and a very focused atmosphere? Or are they open with whiteboards, chatting, and banter? 

2. If you had to envision a perfect candidate or team for your company, what would they look/sound/think like?

  • Are they young, old, married, unmarried, Ivy leaguers, self-taught? 
  • Are they outgoing, introverted, engineers, marketers? 
  • What’s their general experience? Are they startup vets, former consultants, etc. 

3. If you had to choose one or a few pieces of work that you’d define as the ideal quality of work for your company, what does it look like? Why are those the work products you chose? 

The goal of these exercises is to take the broad and ambiguous idea of ‘company culture’ in your mind and make it into something concrete.

It focuses you very clearly on the inputs that dictate a company’s culture and their output: 

  • People 
  • Process 
  • Expectation of Work 

Now, after you’ve answered the questions, what do you do with them?

#1: Take those answers and build the rules of doing business for your company. They should be simple enough to explain to anyone you meet and they shouldn’t be more than a page. If you’re going past that, you’re overdoing it. These are directional rules, not the whole handbook. 

#2: Look closely at the daily, weekly and monthly routines in your business and decide how many of them push the company to hit those ideal cultural goals. Are your daily routines in line with what an ideal day looks like? If not, why? What residual or annoying routines have you picked up from the ‘way things are done’ or something that was helpful at a different point in your business? 

#3: Begin thinking about systems you can put in place to enforce the culture from when a person joins your company to every single day following it.

Culture is an Active Thing. It’s Not Built Through Mission Statements. It’s Built Through Systems.

Culture is built through actions, not words. Build processes in your company's workflow that enforce your core culture at every single step. Systems are what double down for a company culture, not speeches, not an onboarding meeting, and certainly not a manifesto. A manifesto is nothing but a Northstar.  

The systems are what hammered in every single day, they are the foundation, and then they are the consistent reminder of what a company thinks is important.  

Examples of Our Systems to Reinforce Company Culture

#1: Doing quality assurance, after every single project is done. We do post-mortems focused on the big wins to take into future projects and issues we run into so we can build processes to avoid them.  

#2: Doing retros after every single week to focus on what we did well and what we could have done better, and then deciding on one thing to improve in the next week, 

#3: Having socials, both remote and in person, focused on people being able to take off their work personas and being people with one another and building real relationships. This translates directly into the workplace, especially when it comes to candor, collaboration, and loyalty. 

#4: Having rules and very clear standards for hiring, because again you are picking athletes for a team that you think is going to be one of the best in the world. Therefore, you need to be very selective in firing people who don't fit. Even if they are high performers, they will burn a culture to the ground. They might perform, but your overall team will not perform. The greatest companies in the world aren't looking for a mish mash of superstars, they’re looking for teams that perform at superstar quality [A Fantastic Google Study Covering This].

#5: Building systems that focus on growth for ALL hires. Focusing on things like, learning plans, teaching sessions, daily priority setting, and forced downtime. The teaching, learning, and focus on the more ‘meta’ elements of knowledge work is a very clear indication that the company cares a lot more about the long-term development of talent than just attempting to squeeze as much work out of them as possible until they burn out. 

#6: Having something like a full 30 day money back guarantee (especially in services). It’s a very clear indication to both potential clients and your own team that you are not paying lip service to the altar of quality. You are willing to put a significant amount of company revenue on the line to guarantee the quality of your work. 

The Biggest Lesson We Learned; Auditing Your Culture Like A Doctor 

Problems with culture in a company are often not obvious at all. It starts with the day-to-day: a missed deadline here, a stressful meeting where people said words they regretted, a brainstorming session where the CEO got impatient and pushed through his idea rather than listen to the opinions of his team. Taken alone, none of these things cause any massive disruption or derailing of a company’s culture. 

It’s the slow accumulation of these that lead to the massive, company disrupting issues. The erosion of a company culture is a lot like cancer. It spends 80% of its life completely undetectable. Then, in a matter of a few months, it spreads across the body and dessimates it. 

All you have to do is take a look around at some of the biggest companies in the world, who are now dealing with issues that have developed over the last few decades. Whether we’re talking about Investment Banking, Blizzard, Riot, or Amazon, each of these companies clearly found themselves at the pinnacle of their industries due to excellent work but didn’t do the work of auditing their cultures. And much like cancer, the bill came due at some point. Each of them is now working to deal with damage control.  

It is in the interest of company leadership to treat their companies a lot like doctor’s treat a patient. Providing regular check-ups on the fundamentals, keeping an eye out for anything that isn’t concerning today but might be later, and making sure their patient is engaged in good habits. 

Lastly, when we refer to auditing the culture, we mean asking employees all the way down to the interns. Management will often think everything is rosy. The people who actually know are the entry level employees who are on the ground. Step away from your assumptions and build systems; hear the feedback that is coming from the bottom and the middle, all the way up. 

You won't see the massive cultural problems in your company, until they become a huge problem. Those are massive issues that are whispered, and felt at the rank and file, but do not get to the top because no one wants to give bad news to their boss. And if you don't build systems that, find a way around that, and personalize them giving that feedback, then it won't come to your attention until it's become a massive issue.