Culture revolution: The era of the cult of the founder is over
Back from black. A Holi celebration in Belarus. Image: Avis De Miranda/Shutterstock

Culture revolution: The era of the founder cult is over

26 Jun 2017

In the aftermath of the Uber saga, culture and values matter more than ever – especially if you want to keep millennials on the payroll, writes John Kennedy.

In the course of my work, my eyes and ears tended to glide past terms like ‘culture’ that CEOs would bandy about during interviews. I used to cynically think such terms were pretentious and just a sly attempt to slip in “by the way, we’re hiring” into the conversation.

Over time I realised I was wrong. Very wrong. Culture really matters. It is really the difference between success and failure on so many levels, the most poignant being personal.

‘I think the passion you are seeing from women is an increasing level of disgust. It is just so ridiculous that you can’t help but bang your hand off your head and say: “What is going on here?”’

In my mind, culture has moved from an intangible nice-to-have thing to something far more valuable and fundamental than even the bottom line. It speaks volumes about your company’s values, how your employees feel about your company, what they do, how they treat customers, how they feel about your leadership, and of course, their place in your organisation.

Simply put, culture stands for what you as a business stand for.

If company culture sucks or is dysfunctional, the world will eventually know about it. And investors in start-ups have been given a distinct lesson on why it matters.

The sorry chronicle of toxic workplace culture revelations about what was going on at Uber culminating in the resignation of founder and CEO Travis Kalanick last week isn’t just a salacious news item.

It is a turning point.

What has changed is, now more than ever, a spotlight will be placed on various company cultures. And workers are less afraid about speaking up.

After a blog post from former Uber employee Susan Fowler went viral in February cataloguing the inability of Uber to take her harassment complaints seriously and highlighting how unfairly victims had been treated when it came to performance reviews, a new benchmark has been set. And organisations will be judged publicly. Many of the findings in the Holder report by former US attorney general Eric Holder who probed the claims of harassment and discrimination make sobering reading.

Fowler, now a tech magazine editor working with the Collison brothers’ Stripe, should be lauded for her bravery and she is an example of a fearless new generation of workers who do not only want the dignity of a job, but will fight tooth and nail to ensure their dignity, their rights and the rights of their colleagues are respected.

They want more than just the dignity of a job and the appropriate wages, they want to work in organisations whose values align with their own. Give them something to believe in.

Be culture ventures, not culture vultures

It was while interviewing Astia CEO Sharon Vosmek, who will be a speaker at the upcoming Inspirefest event in Dublin next week (6-8 July) that it was obvious the boiling point in understanding what company culture actually is, particularly as it relates to Silicon Valley, had been reached.

‘I was raised to believe I could change the world. I’m desperate for you to show me that the work we do here matters, even just a little bit. I’ll make copies, I’ll fetch coffee, I’ll do the grunt work. But I’m not doing it to help you get a new Mercedes’

We discussed the bizarre situation whereby a board member of Uber, TPG’s David Bonderman who is also the chairman of Ryanair, had to resign after making a sexist comment at a staff meeting set up to discuss – wait for it – sexism.

Fellow Uber board member and Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington spoke about how one woman on a board often leads to more women joining a board. “I’ll tell you what it shows, is that there’s much more likely to be more talking on the board,” Bonderman responded without any tact.

The story went viral and unsurprisingly, Bonderman resigned from the board, adding another sorry footnote to the catalogue of errors at Uber.

“I think the comments made by the board member at a staff meeting at Uber epitomises what I see, which is a continued tone deafness to the issue,” Vosmek said.

Our subsequent discussion made me realise that the Uber saga is a symptom of the current unicorn race with a focus on the ultimate exit for venture investors resulting in a lionisation of founders who deliver the results, no matter who gets crushed. This steely focus on results and the road to IPO means that the enduring bro culture in Silicon Valley, lack of empathy and emotional intelligence in the workplace and a veritable Lord of the Flies working environment in many start-ups means that Silicon Valley is not the meritocracy it likes to think it is. Far from it.

The sense that Kalanick’s resignation after receiving a letter from investors may have been more about protecting IPO interests, rather than a morality move, is neatly summed up by a piece by Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair.

Speaking with Vosmek, the women in the Valley and across the wider tech world have had enough.

“I think the passion you are seeing from women is an increasing level of disgust. It is just so ridiculous that you can’t help but bang your hand off your head and say: ‘What is going on here?’ It has real consequences. We know the people, the technology and the innovation that don’t make it to market. Once you make that connection, it is very hard to sit still and not become passionate about it.

“Do I see a change? No, I actually see a retrenchment. I see venture capital becoming further entrenched.

“Of course, you can say a lot of words. But if you don’t hear and don’t process or take the time to understand, all that happens is you become entrenched in your own beliefs and that is what I see happening in Silicon Valley.”

Why values and beliefs matter

The long catalogue of errors at Uber will leave an indelible mark on business history. The subject matter will be taught in business schools from Harvard to Oxford as a compelling lesson in how not to manage people in a time of meteoric growth. Even if your business isn’t growing at the rate of Uber, even if it is tanking, you look after the people.

Uber – valued at $70bn with funding of close to $10bn – is still a viable business that has upended the transport industry worldwide and because there is so much invested in it and a willingness by shareholders to fix the culture, it could one day be the poster child for achieving a cultural turnaround.

It could also be the poster child for ending the cult of the almighty founder that you see at big tech events.

As Vosmek pointed out to me, Microsoft is more than Bill Gates, Apple is more than Steve Jobs, Oracle is more than Larry Ellison and Facebook is more than Mark Zuckerberg. Unfortunately, investors think the founder needs to be a white man who has dropped out of university. That needs to change.

If the saga has served any purpose, it has redefined culture. It has elevated the meaning and importance of culture to a new high.

I realise now why companies like Hubspot enshrine its ‘Culture Code’ of beliefs, practices and values to almost the same level of veneration as a nation’s constitution.

It is about everyone being on the same page, appreciated and treated fairly, working for the same set of goals as one and feeling rewarded and respected for doing so.

And for employers seeking to attract and retain millennials, giving them something to believe in and not just plum wages, free food or fancy offices, will make all the difference going forward.

Believe in your workers but also give your workers something to believe in

The issue of culture and why it matters was neatly summed up in a LinkedIn article I found at the weekend by Lisa Earle McLeod entitled: ‘Why Millennials Keep Dumping You: An Open Letter to Management’.

She pointed out that millennials are 35pc of the workforce. By 2020 they’ll be 46pc of the working population. And in the midst of a talent war, their views need to be listened to.

What do millennials want, she asked? They want purpose. “I need to be surrounded by people who are on fire for what we’re doing. I need a manager who is motivated to push boundaries and think differently. Working in a cool office is really awesome. So is free lunch. But a purposeful culture is more important.”

McLeod rightly pointed out that workers need to feel valued, to feel they have a purpose. Treat them just like a number and they will respond in kind. Eight months in, they will either quit or just stay on as a Donna-do-nothing. And that isn’t good for anyone.

“I was raised to believe I could change the world. I’m desperate for you to show me that the work we do here matters, even just a little bit. I’ll make copies, I’ll fetch coffee, I’ll do the grunt work. But I’m not doing it to help you get a new Mercedes.

“I’ll give you everything I’ve got, but I need to know it makes a difference to something bigger than your bottom line.”

McLeods’ words are the clearest and most precise yet on what millennials want from employers still clinging to old ways and bewildered by this impatient young breed.

Smart leaders are laser-focused on culture. In recent weeks, I had a coffee with Peter Keeling of Diaceutics, a Dundalk-based life sciences company whose technology has so far ensured that 500,000 cancer patients in the US and the EU are receiving the correct treatments.

‘Culture is what is still in the air when everybody has left the room. It is a spirit, it is a sense of belonging’

In his mid-50s, Keeling has the energy, intensity, passion and focus of a man or woman half his age. He has been around the block working for the pharma industry and this is his second start-up. Because Diaceutics is marrying the worlds of data science with precision drugs and life sciences, he is creating an entirely new organisation consisting of people with different skill sets working together for the first time. And he knows that it is fundamental he gets the culture right.

“What is culture?” he asked. “Culture is what is still in the air when everybody has left the room. It is a spirit, it is a sense of belonging. It is about feeling rewarded, about feeling looked after and recognised, and it is about everyone working toward a common goal and how we go about that.”

Keeling is correct. Culture isn’t just values, it is spirit. A sense of pride in what you are doing. And it is about a belief system and set of ethics to get you there. In the military world they call it élan.

Culture isn’t about defining the world as you want to see it, it is about how you intend to make that world better in a way you, your colleagues and your customers feel right about and are invested in. Above all, it is about diversity of people.

It isn’t about surrounding yourself with people who look like you or who you want to look like. It isn’t about having cronies or cliques to meet a short-term business goal.

If your company culture is just one way of looking at the world and fails to inspire and include workers at every level of the organisation, then frankly there is more culture in a tub of yoghurt.

If you do not have a cultural constitution, get everyone involved in writing one now.

A Holi celebration in Belarus. Image: Avis De Miranda/Shutterstock

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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