Sit Down and Start Up: Cultivating Company Culture

In our new series, Sit Down and Start Up, we sit down with our Gray Scalable consultants to talk more about what we do best - HR solutions for start-up and growth stage companies. In today’s post, Lucia Smith, a Human Resources Consultant, defines culture, discusses its importance and dives deeper into how early orgs can build a strong, authentic culture that represents the company.

What is culture?

Culture is your company’s social order – your attitudes, behaviors, and mindsets. It is not: your swag or your parties or random fun perks you offer, though they may be an extension of the decisions that root your culture.


So how do you build a culture?

Purposefully. Culture absolutely starts from the top, with your company’s founder and also any early employees or senior leadership.

When you build a culture it’s not about brainstorming phrases that you think reflect your company or its values (though those are obviously related). Separately, your defined culture needs to be authentic and true; if it’s too aspirational it simply won’t stick. So it’s not five sexy words you write on a meeting room wall - it’s the reality of what it’s like to work at your company day in and day out. You need to sit down and think about what actions or behaviors or ways of getting things done you want to lift up, and which you want to define as problematic. Ask yourself: What are the things you prioritize? How do you celebrate wins? How do you want to approach work as a team? Those ultimately add up to your culture.

It’s never too early to think about this– the norms you set for even one other employee have a snowball effect and it’s much easier to steer a canoe than a cruise ship. When you’re small is a great time to think about what you care about, how you want to behave – making those decisions before you’re in any specific situation makes it easier to live up to your ideals when the going gets tough, or chaotic, or both. Equally important, you want to hire people who will lift up and add to your culture and to do that you need to first define it for yourself. Don’t panic if you’re mid-sized and are just now thinking decisively about culture - as long as your take a strong stance it’s possible to set new norms, and sometimes you need to see what happens naturally to make sure your culture really is authentic when you define it.


So what does good culture look like?

There is no single “good” culture, and because it comes authentically from leadership and early employees, no culture will exactly mirror any other (nor should it).

That said, in a very broad sense here’s what I personally think are tenets of a good culture:

1) Trust: There’s a bias toward sharing information – you trust your people and they trust you to handle info. There are companies that believe every.single.conversation. should be public knowledge. They record every convo, make every meeting public in the name of transparency. To be clear, that’s not what I’m suggesting here. To me, that’s not trust, that’s transparency - and there’s a huge difference. I’ve seen companies falter and have to pivot, but come out strong because they ultimately told their employees what was going on. They didn’t share every financial happening or decision being made, but gave weekly updates on the big picture situation, how they were thinking, and why - and took questions. That’s trust - that your employees can handle info, and roll with it when it changes.

2) Empathy: You consider each other as much as or more than you do your customers, you put yourself in others’ shoes, and you seek first to understand.  Some founders have great products and really care about their customers but then undercut their employees and don’t think very deeply about it. It’s an issue to preach and monetize feminism as a brand, but have poor family leave offerings, or to be a vocal supporter of transparency with customers but avoid Q&As with employees.  If your insides don’t match your outsides, you have a problem.

3) Respect: Everyone respects each other’s time, their motivations, and their intellect.  One of the most common complaints I hear from employees at companies is their time is not respected. I’ve seen employee engagement rise simply by mandating that meetings start on time and have agendas or are automatically canceled. Not everything you do has to be rocket science.

4) Humility: You succeed and fail as a unit, you give credit to others, share successes, analyze failures, and support those who are struggling.  This can be as small as noting who made a presentation or just thanking someone for doing something even if it’s their job. There are also great stories of companies sending underrepresented employees to accept awards, or ring the stock market bell when they go public.  A culture of humility is one in which it’s understood that you’re in it together when things go south and that you’ll shout their names next to yours when things go north.

5) You operate inclusively and ethically and the company puts in effort to make sure all employees are seen, heard, and supported. In short, unless a culture is good for everyone, it’s not a good culture.


Once you’ve established your culture how do you protect it?

There’s two parts to this:  First, you have to share with your team what kind of culture you believe in (aka: set the norms). Then you have to hold yourself and everyone accountable to it. Strictly.

There’s a great article called Your Culture is Who You Hire, Fire, and Promote. It highlights an issue many companies run into: they say they believe certain things, but signal in subtle and un-subtle ways that they actually believe completely different things. If you ask people to share information but hold onto info as a leader, your culture is one of hiding information. If you tell everyone you believe in independence but promote a star performer who micromanages, you believe in micromanaging (even if you’re secretly coaching that person to act otherwise). Actions, as we know, speak louder than words. And culture is nothing but actions on repeat.

Be vigilant about the systems and processes you put in place, especially as you grow and become more successful – for each decision, run it through a filter of “does this match or expand upon the culture I want?” Separately, ask for feedback and ask for it from a wide variety of sources. A healthy culture has checks and balances, and considers and supports all types of people. Ask a wide variety of people what they think a good culture is and what they need from the company. Even if you’re quite small you can still ask friends, family, the internet. The greatest way to protect your culture is to stay curious, to hold yourself accountable to your ideals, and to ask others to do the same.


Lucia Smith Headshot-1Lucia Smith, HR Consultant
As an HR consultant Lucia helps companies build, hone, and scale their HR practices. Prior to joining Gray Scalable she held HR and recruiting leadership roles at Paperless Post and LimeWire, growing their teams and building and formalizing their HR functions from the ground up. Lucia takes an inclusion-first approach to her work and specializes in lean HR functions, manager support and training, scaling culture, and internal company communication.