How to Build a Healthy Corporate Culture

George Bell, nToggle Board of Director and XIR at General Catalyst Partners, kicked off our Lunch and Learn Summer Series last week.  George gave us great advice about building start up corporate culture properly from day one given its correlation with successful outcomes. George summarized his guidance in our latest blog post.

How to Build a Healthy Corporate Culture

Having seen hundreds of companies as an operator and investor, I was very happy to pass along advice to nToggle on how to start their corporate culture off on the right foot versus correcting it down the road.  These things all seem obvious, but I have encountered many start-ups that forget about fundamentals and then face really hard work to turn things around.

Here are a few things I’ve focused on in my career that help build successful cultures and increase chances of success.

The most important asset a company has is its people.  Other companies have people and capital too.  So, it’s really about how well you harness your people with a clear vision and channel your energy towards that vision that will give you the best chance to win.

Explain Your Business in Seven Words

The compression of a company’s value proposition into a very tight understandable segment is what sells things internally and externally.  Think TV Guide summary-you have seven words to sell a show.  Claim to be the leader at something and focus all of your decisions on making that happen.  These seven words become the centerpiece of the company, setting out the vision, objectives and ultimately serve as a decision making framework. 

Not All Decisions are Equal

Startups must rank decisions that need to be made.  If all decisions are tossed into a stew, then everything looks the same and that is very very dangerous.  Not all decisions are equal, nor do they require input from all employees - some weeks you will be critical, some weeks you won’t.  You’ve got to get comfortable living with this.  Really, it’s OK.

Not all decisions should be made in the same time frame. Priority decisions require time to get right, other less important decisions can be made quickly.  By force ranking decisions, you’ll move at the right pace for each necessary outcome. 

Once a Decisions is Made, Live with It

All employees in the company need to live with decisions and not second-guess them.  That is not to say that if new data surfaces that you can’t revisit a decision.  However, the water cooler discussion examining a decision wastes valuable time and energy.  If you can’t do this, it’s time to leave.

That said, the company is obliged to be transparent about the logic behind why decisions are made.  Without this openness, conspiracy theories pervade the corporate culture.  Transparency also allows employees to understand how their role contributes to the big picture.

Think and Act Like Owners

There are really two types of employees: owners and workers.

Owners don’t need prompting, they are impatient for even the smaller things to be fixed in a company so they can deal with the bigger things.  Owners will take accountability, while workers will wait.  The more people willing to step up and take action, the better the company.

My favorite way to transform workers when they complain that something isn’t going well has always been to ask, “So what are you doing about it?”  Owners don’t need this prompting, they identify issues and suggest ways to improve.

It is easy now for nToggle – you all feel like owners at this stage.  As you grow the company to the next 50 people, maintaining the owner culture is critical.  The obligation is on you, the initial core, to carry forward and pass this onto the new hires. 

Start ups are not easy-you have market and competitive forces at work.  But, establish a positive corporate culture like you have at nToggle and you are off to a great start.

-g