As we sat down for the latest installment of Koan Book Club, our selection—Ben Horowitz’s What You Do is Who You Are—inspired deeper introspection of the culture we’ve created (deliberately or otherwise) at Koan.
Corporate culture is a squishy, complicated concept. It’s at once an executive priority and a job-market qualifier; the sum of a firm’s behaviors and its aspirations for what those behaviors ought to be. As a startup helping scale leadership processes on behalf of (typically much larger) firms, we’ve had considerable exposure to how different cultures impact the organizations around them.
But what about our own? As we sat down for the latest installment of Koan Book Club, our selection—Ben Horowitz’s What You Do is Who You Are—inspired deeper introspection of the culture we’ve created (deliberately or otherwise) at Koan. The book reaches well beyond the usual business-school case studies, drawing on anecdotes from feudal Japan, the Haitian Revolution, and the Michigan State Prison System to illustrate culture’s role in any human endeavor. Our experience is somewhat more focused. Still, the book highlighted common themes that tend to turn up in any effective culture.
Designing the culture
Not every organization approaches culture as an intentional project. While it’s possible for amazing culture to emerge organically, leaders can significantly increase the odds by identifying and encouraging practices that will help their organization succeed.
Walk the walk. In culture as in most things, actions are greater than words. Culture is what you do—not what you say—and actions that contradict a value or goal will quickly undermine it.
Tell the right story. Simply leading by example isn’t enough. Leaders must make sure that positive behaviors are understood. Short, memorable anecdotes help build a mythos and spread practices through an organization.
Set "shocking" rules.Surprising rules are a powerful way to get employees’ attention. Whether it actually saved money or not, Amazon's practice of having employees build their desks from doors made a (memorable) point about frugality that endures to this day.
Foster inclusion. Culture should not be a cult. An over-defined culture that selects only for people that look and think like the people already in the culture will compromise the culture’s efficacy in the long run. What's good for harmony may not be good for encouraging diverse ideas and experiences.
For one example, consider a traditionally task-oriented organization seeking a more results-oriented culture. This shift begins with leaders setting clear outcomes for themselves and the organization (walking the walk); recognizing innovations that arise from employees “working smarter, not harder” (telling the right stories); setting business hours that shift focus from “putting in time” to delivering results (set “shocking” rules); and encouraging employees at every level to participate in defining, measuring, and delivering outsize results (fostering inclusion).
Most of the lessons from What You Do is Who You Are resonated with our team at Koan. Culture is a multi-faceted challenge for us, from the practices we enable and support in our leadership platform to the habits we embrace in our own work, and the common threads were immediately recognizable in both our customers’ experience and our own.
Given Koan’s mission to help every organization achieve their purpose, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve approached our own culture with considerable intent. Since day one we’ve embraced the ideals of transparency, ownership, and purpose, and reinforced them through recognition from peers, managers, and (not infrequently) our customers. The company’s financials, opportunities, and risks are shared freely with every employee; our work is organized around strategic objectives and individual initiative; and the ongoing “meta-conversation” connecting our business and product is never far from anyone’s minds. All employees have a hand in challenging and shaping the culture that continues to coalesce. We aren’t likely to compromise on our closest-held values, but as new voices join the chorus nearly everything else is on the table.
While a culture with relatively few established norms can evolve more readily than a deeply entrenched one, cultural change is never an immediate process. Sometimes, though, this can be an advantage. Koan has doubled in size over the last six months, and having the pillars of an effective culture already in place has helped ensure our cultural momentum stays pointed in the right direction.
We’re also acutely aware that culture won’t always look after itself. Behavior tends to regress to the mean; in practical terms, to the lowest standard that the organization will stand for. If a company lets bad behavior slide, that behavior becomes the accepted standard. The high degree of autonomy and ownership that we’ve enjoyed at Koan to date demand equally high expectations and accountability, and balancing them requires active, ongoing guardianship from our entire team.
Back before Koan had a leadership platform (or even a team), our founders spent six months interviewing respected leaders—everyone from LinkedIn's Kevin Scott to former Secretary of State Colin Powell—to understand the tools, beliefs, and practices they used to deliver amazing results. Many of the common practices turned up in that research have subsequently dropped into different stages of Koan’s roadmap, but many more are elusive, human dimensions that software may never really capture.
Not everyone we spoke to mentioned culture directly, but everyone had examples of practices and uncompromising principles that they'd intentionally woven into the fabric of their organizations. Everyone agreed, however, that talk isn’t enough. Culture is who you are. It's the practices you adopt, the values you believe in, and the mission that you’re out to achieve. It defines you. But acknowledging that reality and approaching it with intent, you may be able to define it, too.