During the heyday of the dot-com era, lots of startups built their company culture based on foosball tables, cool office space and Friday afternoon beer parties.
In the end, it didn’t work out well for most. When the dot-com bubble burst and the Herman Miller chairs were auctioned off, it became clear that “perks” don’t create a very stable foundation.
Now company founders are realizing that culture has less to do with catered lunches and more to do with what happens between people.
Today, Eugene Sepulveda, CEO of the Austin-based Entrepreneurs Foundation, is leading the second annual Culturati Summit, a two-day invitation-only Austin conference that brings together CEOs and other top executives to discuss building a strong culture inside the workplace.
We spoke with Sepulveda about the conference.
How do you define culture?
Sepulveda: There are lots of definitions of culture. I think of it as the way people work together, communicate and make decisions. Sounds simple but it’s all inclusive. It helps drives success or failure. The best CEOs spend a lot of their time addressing the inputs of culture and monitoring its healthiness; they know it is a major contributor to overall organizational success.
It’s important to note that values are the bedrock of culture. Culture will change as our organizations grow, hopefully grounded in the principles and business objectives we’ve collectively established.
What do I see in today’s startup companies? We’re seeing greater emphasis on employee engagement, on hiring people who are a cultural fit, on communication, transparency and investment in employee growth and development.
We’ve launched Culturati Summit to bring together leaders who already prioritize culture building, who get that it’s a major contributor to organizational success, so we can learn from each other, from research scholars and from others.
What are you hoping to achieve?
You can’t host a conference on culture without paying attention to culture – so we do it differently than other conferences. We’re more intimate (only 175). We’re not in a convention room or hotel for most of the summit – we start at the LBJ Presidential Library, then attendees spread out across the city for intimate dinners at the homes of Austin CEOs and the mayor. The next morning we gather at Brazos Hall, with breakout sessions at the JW Marriott.
Our theme last year was “Culture – How it Works, How to Measure It, How to Get it Right.”
This year, the theme is “Truth and Practice.”
Truth is a clear picture of what’s really going on. Practice is skill building and personal development.
The best employees want clarity of ambition, open communication, transparency and we have to invest in their growth and development (personal & professional) to keep them.
The linchpins of our planning for the year are two award winning books written by some of the best scholars in the world today researching culture – “An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization” and “Peak: Secrets from The New Science of Expertise.”
Andy Fleming, a contributing author to “An Everyone Culture” and professor Anders Ericsson author of “Peak” are both joining us and leading panels and breakouts. Anders is actually leading projects at two Culturati member companies to accelerate expertise among software developers.
What’s your advice to founders who are starting companies for the first time? How do you build a foundation that emphasizes values and culture?
This is a very interesting question and the answer is hotly debated. I’m coming around to: Founders should spend time talking about the vision, values and culture they want to have - but then they should write those down, place them in an envelope, file the envelope and not pull it out until they reach 30 to 50 employees, or until they no longer have full visibility of what goes on.
Like writing down goals, you naturally default to those, whether or not you read them every day. When you’ve grown so that the founders no longer have full visibility, pull together the full team, engage everyone in articulating the values and characteristics of the culture.
Make it descriptive, not aspirational. Then, compare what you wrote down at the founding of the company. Informed by both, work on the aspirational cultural and value objectives. Then there’s much broader ownership and buy-in.
Trick is the founders hiring for a cultural fit all along. Like I say, the answer is hotly debated. But mine is the synthesis of my own experience together with that of my favorite entrepreneurs.
How do you know if your company’s culture is working?
Your company is breakout successful; people want to work there; employees stay, grow, laugh, work hard and play. Customers want more. Investors are ecstatic.
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