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Building effective Startups: The Role of Culture

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The culture of an organization, the way that things are done, will develop whether there’s intention or not. By defining what it should be, you can influence the behavior. If you don’t define it, it’ll develop organically and you might not like the results. 

Josh Sephton, Via LinkedIn.

Culture is “the way we do things around here.” When you join a new team, you will quickly be humbled. Everybody knows everybody, everyone has a circle – or not. They know the bosses’ good and bad times -read, when to ask for favors and when not to. There’s clearly a formula on how business runs, and everybody knows it, except you. The newbie. Always saying hi to those that prefer quiet mornings, inviting to lunch the project manager that eats sandwiches at his desk, or running every step of your project by your supervisor who really prefers to just oversee and give feedback. Or, the opposite- when you meet the micromanager. Most times, teams have held on to their beliefs, rituals and behaviors for far too long, and will immediately sideline anyone who dares question “the way of doing things.”

All these things, added together, really define how teams work. And, ultimately, decide whether a team will build something great, or will jeopardize the productivity of an organization. In this article, we’ll explore the profound impact of startup culture on team dynamics and why getting it right can be the difference between success and failure.

So what then, is Culture, and Why is it so Important?

Culture isn’t just about Ping-Pong tables, free snacks and beer Fridays; it’s the underlying DNA that shapes how a team works together, innovates, and ultimately thrives. A strong culture provides a shared sense of purpose and identity, aligns team members around common goals, and fosters trust, collaboration, and resilience.

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With the right culture within an organization, team members feel aligned, valued and empowered to put their best foot forward. This ultimately manifests into productivity, as there is a common and shared sense of purpose. No one is sidelined, there is no deadweight on the team, or walking on eggshells when it’s time to put a point across. And, it’s not just about productivity.

When you think of startups, the thought of challenges and tough days surely must cross your mind. The beauty of a strong and positive culture is that it carries a startup –and really any organization, through the dark days. When the product launch is a flop, or the expected funding didn’t pan out. Delayed salaries and the dreaded PR disasters that are a daily dose for most startups. A trusting, aligned, resilient and optimistic team- all *aspects* cultivated by a positive organizational culture will more often than not be willing and able to endure the tough times without backing out, cutting corners or sabotaging the organization.

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Conversely, a toxic or dysfunctional culture can erode morale, hinder productivity, and drive talented team members away, ultimately spelling doom for the startup.

Cultivating a Positive Startup Culture:

Building a positive startup culture requires intentional effort and a commitment from leadership to prioritize values, behaviors, and norms that support the company’s mission and vision. Elements that define a positive culture are many. Today we discuss 3 key elements of a positive startup culture, and how Core values are the foundation on which a culture is built.

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1. Aligning with the core values of your organization.

Core values are the foundation on which a culture is built. By definition, core values are “ideals you believe that determine your behavior and decisions.” They do not change with every turn or dynamics of the economy, society or organizational disruption. The point of values and mission in an organization is to define a pathway and create a guide for the team to follow in the process of executing the set goals.

When hiring, it is important to look out for people who align with your core values. If, for instance, your core value as a startup is boldness, it is crucial to be on the lookout for hires that share this core value. This means people who are not afraid of leaping on new ideas, even without full knowledge. People who don’t wait for conditions to align to act. People that are ready to try, fail and then try again.

When your core value is perseverance, team members that don’t back out when the going gets tough, that stay objective as opposed to emotional or panicked in less than favorable circumstances, are your best bet. As a startup, it is crucial to realize that a hire can have the right skills and be the best on the job, but when their core values are misaligned with yours, any attempt to “be on the same page” or “share a culture” will be futile.

Every organization explicitly outlines their mission, vision and values on their websites and walls, but it is just that- words. They do not integrate their values into their daily operations- hiring, crisis management, milestone conversations.

Deciding what values will help you achieve your goals, then integrating them in your day to day running will set a good foundation for a positive culture, even for people that join in later on, or through the dynamics that are bound to happen.

2. Empowerment and Ownership.

An empowered team isn’t just an asset; they’re the heart and soul of a productive workforce. When individuals feel empowered to take ownership of their work, supported to innovate, and encouraged to voice their ideas, they not only thrive personally, they also become catalysts for positive change and contribute to a vibrant and collaborative environment where creativity, productivity and success becomes a collective journey. And that is exactly what the goal of a positive culture should be – To be on a collective journey.

Autonomy is one of the guaranteed ways to empower a team. The degree to which a team or individual has freedom to make their own decisions and take actions independently, without excessive external control or micromanagement is consistent with the level of responsibility and ownership they have towards their work. Autonomy can manifest in various forms, such as setting their own schedules, choosing how to approach tasks, making decisions about resource allocation, and having input into strategic planning and goal-setting –as long as the goal is met.  When individuals have a sense of control over their work and are trusted to make decisions, they tend to feel more invested in their jobs and more motivated to perform at their best.

Empowering employees, however, goes beyond simply granting them autonomy; it is about unleashing their full potential to drive innovation, creativity, and productivity.

Implementing your team’s good ideas and giving them credit for it, ensuring employee satisfaction and engagement in brainstorming sessions, promoting and supporting their personal growth and development can create a culture where individuals thrive and contribute to the collective success of the company.

3. Diversity and Inclusion.

If you are a startup founder, I hate to break it to you, diversity and inclusion are not just buzzwords that corporates use to sound fancy. They are fundamental principles that drive innovation, creativity, and ultimately, the success of the company. When you talk of a positive organizational culture, diversity and inclusion must be among your to-do.

Diversity by definition is “the presence of a variety of different demographic and cultural characteristics within a group.” Most startup founders will be tempted to include their sister, a cousin, someone that looks like them, or with similar characters in the team. When it’s one or two, that might be okay. But at the very beginning stages of a startup, pulling all or most of your team members from your closest circle is as close to sabotage as you can get. Not only are boundaries shaky and blurred, but whenever a new team member from outside your circle or different from the team joins, they immediately are the outsider.

Diversity includes both visible differences, such as physical appearance, as well as invisible differences, such as cognitive styles, personality traits, and life experiences.

Embracing diversity means recognizing and valuing the unique perspectives, experiences, and contributions that individuals from diverse backgrounds bring to the table. It involves creating an environment where people feel respected, included, and empowered to be their authentic selves, regardless of their differences.

 Inclusion on the other hand, means appreciating and empowering all team members to achieve the set goals, regardless of their differences in identity and background. This means actively having inclusive practices like training and education, implementation of ideas from different team members and equity in terms of pay.

Basically, diversity and inclusion are about creating environments where individuals from all backgrounds feel welcomed, respected, and valued, and where their unique perspectives and contributions are recognized and celebrated.

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